Jury selection may wrap up today for trial of two men accused of conspiring to join Taliban

RIVERSIDE – Jury selection will resume this morning in the federal trial of two of four men accused of conspiring to join the Taliban in Afghanistan to kidnap and kill American troops.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said opening statements could begin as early as this afternoon in the trial of Ralph Kenneth DeLeon, 25, of Ontario, and Sohiel Omar Kabir, a 36-year-old Afghan native who briefly lived in Pomona.

Both defendants are charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, as well as to commit murder.

Co-defendants Arifeen David Gojali, 23, of Riverside, and 23-year-old Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales, who was living in Upland at the time of the alleged conspiracy, will be tried separately.

The four defendants were arrested in November 2012 and are each being held without bail at a federal detention center. They face more than 15 years in prison if convicted.

During a pretrial hearing last week at the federal courthouse in downtown Riverside, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips heard arguments from the prosecution and defense regarding the use of audio recordings obtained during undercover operatives’ conversations with the defendants.

Federal Deputy Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron challenged the use of transcripts being supplied by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, suggesting a bias in the text. The defense requested that Phillips let jurors listen to the recordings without referring to a written narrative, but the judge declined the motion.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has spent the last 18 months identifying and securing witnesses and evidence for what’s expected to be a trial spanning more than a month.

The criminal complaint alleges the defendants planned to:

— kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons and damage property in a foreign country;

— attempt to kill officers and employees of the United States;

— use a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States; and

— bomb public places and U.S. government facilities.

Prosecutors allege that in 2010, Kabir introduced DeLeon and Vidriales to radical and violent Islamic doctrine, using lectures and essays by the U.S.- born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a key al-Qaida figure until he was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Kabir went to Afghanistan in July 2012, maintaining contact with his co- defendants. He had told them to follow him to Afghanistan, where he would introduce them to Taliban and al-Qaida operatives, whom he referred to as ”the students,” according to government documents.

DeLeon and Vidriales unwittingly told an FBI informant that they planned to travel overseas to engage in violent jihad, targeting American military personnel and bases, according to prosecutors.

The Riverside-based Joint Terrorism Task Force led the investigation, comprised of detectives from the Riverside and San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments; the Riverside, Beaumont and Ontario police departments; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and the FBI.

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