Three California men excited at the prospect of training in Afghanistan to become terrorists prepared by simulating combat with paintball rifles, wiping their Facebook profiles of any Islamic references and concocting cover stories, authorities said.
Just two days before they were going to board a plane bound for Istanbul - and then on to Afghanistan - FBI agents thwarted plans that officials said included killing Americans and bombing US military bases overseas.
The arrests last week in the US and of the man said to be the ringleader, 34-year-old American Sohiel Omar Kabir, in Afghanistan was laid out in a 77-page affidavit, which included references to the group's online video conversations and audio recordings.
While authorities do not believe there were any plans for an attack in the US, two of the men arrested told a confidential FBI informant they would consider American jihad, according to court documents unsealed in federal court on Monday.
The arrests are the latest in a series of cases where US residents were targeted to become terrorists. Last month, a Minneapolis man was convicted of helping send young men to Somalia to join the al Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab.
Along with Kabir, Ralph Deleon, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales and Arifeen David Gojali are facing charges of providing material support to terrorists. The charges can carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Federal investigators said Kabir met Deleon and Santana at a hookah bar and introduced them to the radical Islamist doctrine of the US-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in an American air strike in Yemen.
Kabir, a naturalised US citizen from Afghanistan, served in the US Air Force from 2000 to 2001 at Davis Monthan base in Tucson, Arizona, pulling aircraft or vehicle parts from a supply store. He was administratively separated for unknown reasons and was given an honourable discharge, the military said.
According to the court documents, Deleon said meeting Kabir was like encountering someone from the camps run by al-Awlaki or Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid last year on his compound in Pakistan. Kabir was "basically a mujahid walking the streets of LA", Deleon said, using the term for holy warrior, according to court documents. "He was just waiting to get his papers. And I met him at the point of his life where he was about to go."
Authorities would not say how the investigation began, but they tracked Kabir's travels last year and flagged violent extremist messages posted online by Santana. Covert FBI agents had conversations with Santana online where he expressed his support of jihad and desire to join al Qaida. "We were on them for quite a while," said FBI Special Agent David Bowdich.