Federal prosecutors spilled the core of their case Monday against a security guard from Garden Grove -- busted at a Santa Ana bus station and accused of trying to help Al Qaeda terrorists.
At a trial-setting hearing, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter demanded the Feds explain exactly what evidence they had against Sihn Vihn Ngo Nguyen, who was indicted on one count of attempting to provide material support to a known terrorist group and one count of making a false application for a U.S. Passport.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Heinz told the court:
- The evidence against Nguyen includes his own alleged confession, delivered during a 1-and-a-half to 2-hour videotaped interview with federal agents immediately following his arrest. Heinz said Nguyen waived his Miranda rights verbally and by signing a form.
- Nguyen intended to provide support (himself) to terrorists by offering to train a group of 25-35 Al Qaeda fighters for an ambush attack on U.S. and coalition forces in the Middle East in December, 2013.
- Heinz said Nguyen owns two guns, had visited shooting ranges, and had posted videos online that depicted him involved in shooting exercises in the desert. This, she said, was part of the proof of Nguyen's expertise with weapons.
- Nguyen told the agents he traveled to Syria and fought with opposition forces between December, 2012 and April, 2013, killed at least one person, and used an "FAL" style rifle.
- A "confidential informant" (paid civilian help) introduced Nguyen to an undercover FBI agent, who posed as an Al Qaeda 'recruiter' and promised to help Nguyen get to Pakistan for Jihad against the U.S. and coalition military forces. The undercover fed was specifically described to Nguyen as an, "anti-American high ranking individual with an extremist group."
- The informant and the undercover agent together recorded more than 50 hours of conversations between May and October, 2013 -- in which Nguyen bragged about fighting with Syrian opposition forces and described his commitment to becoming a holy warrior for Islam.
- Nguyen told the undercovers he planned to fake his own death, travel to Pakistan, create a new identity, and travel the world for Jihad.
- The undercover FBI agent suggested (instead) Nguyen should obtain a U.S. passport with a false name, and supplied a blank application. The agent told Nguyen Al Qaeda "brothers" in the government would help create a genuine passport. The feds then produced a real -- but invalid -- passport with Nguyen's alias, Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum, and delivered it to him at a bus station in Santa Ana.
- Nguyen "warmly embraced" the false passport suggestion (judge pointed out it was not Nguyen's idea).
- Agents arrested Nguyen after he purchased a bus ticket to Tijuana using the government-supplied fake passport and walked towards a bus. Inside his backpack they found a notebook with "detailed instructions for firearms drills" and exercises. Nguyen said, "how did you guys found out?" when he was detained.
- Also among Nguyen's travel belongings: a suitcase with clothing, itinerary for flights from Mexico City to Peshawar, Pakistan, $1850 in Syrian currency, a hard drive, and a cellphone.
- At his parents' home agents seized: 3 swords, 2 axes, 2 hatchets, 1 wooden baton, 2 bamboo sticks used for martial arts, a copy of Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War,' airsoft guns and equipment, paintball guns and equipment, military style clothing and tactical gear, and a backpack with MREs (military "Meals Ready to Eat"). Heinz said the discoveries proved Nguyen had a, "military background," and an, "intense interest," in the military. Earlier, Heinz said Nguyen had been rejected from the U.S. Army for a hearing problem. Agents also seized 8 computers, 4 cellular phones, and 4 electronic gaming devices.
- Heinz told the judge it would take 60 days to analyze the hard drives, computers, and cellphones seized. Judge Walter told her to hurry up -- and set the trial for December 3, 2013.
- If the case is tried before a jury, Heinz said 9 witnesses would be called for the government, including: the undercover FBI agent, the confidential informant, the agents who arrested and questioned Nguyen in Santa Ana, an agent who conducted surveillance prior to the arrest, an expert on Al Qaeda, and agents who served a search warrant at Nguyen's home in Garden Grove.
- Nguyen's defense lawyer, federal public defender Yasmine Cader, told the judge she expected to file motions challenging much of the evidence, including Nguyen's alleged recorded statements to undercover agents, the relevance of items seized in the searches, the 'alleged' activity in Syria, the validity of Nguyen's post-arrest statement to the FBI, and the very validity of the search of Nguyen's parents' home.
Nguyen appeared attentive during the hearing. Gone were his long hair and beard, replaced by buzz-cut hair and a clean-shaven face. He wore a dark blue striped polo shirt, blue jeans, and wire-rimmed, circular eyeglasses.
Outside court a friend of Nguyen's who identified himself as, "Robert," said Nguyen had never discussed any of his Syrian adventure or plans to travel to Pakistan.
"He must have talked about that with his other friends," Robert said to reporters before defense attorney Cader led him down a public hallway and cautioned him not to speak to the media.
-- Eric Leonard at Federal Court in Downtown L.A.