LOS ANGELES – A 24-year-old American charged with attempting to assist al-Qaida in international terrorism was enticed into confessing to an undercover FBI agent who posed as a recruiter for the extremist organization and provided him with a false passport, a prosecutor told a judge Monday.
In an extensive inquiry, U.S. District Judge John Walter demanded more information on the case against Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen of Garden Grove, expressing skepticism about some of the evidence. His questioning revealed new facts about the case that depicts Nguyen as a wannabe terrorist with no special skills to offer al-Qaida.
Nguyen appeared in court with his hands shackled to his waist. His appearance was dramatically changed from the time of his arrest, when he had long hair and a beard. He was clean shaven with a close cropped haircut and made no comment during the hearing. He was ordered held without bail.
Nguyen has pleaded not guilty to two charges of making a false statement on a passport and attempting to provide material support and resources to a terrorist organization.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Heinz said evidence against Nguyen was gathered by a confidential informant and an undercover FBI agent who posed as an al-Qaida recruiter. Nguyen had reached out on the Internet and on his Facebook page to join the terrorist group, the prosecutor said.
He was arrested Oct. 11 at a Santa Ana bus station as he prepared to board a bus for Mexico with plane tickets to his ultimate destination in Pakistan, authorities said. The undercover agent escorted him to the bus and had told him they would be meeting "his sheik" in Peshawar, the prosecutor said.
When agents moved in to arrest him, Nguyen exclaimed, "'How did you guys find out?'" Heinz said.
The prosecutor said Nguyen had his fake passport, $1,850 in Syrian currency and a pamphlet with extensive instructions on shooting and setting up battle plans.
In his home, she said they found three swords, two large axes, two hatchets and a copy of the famous tome, "The Art of War."
Heinz said the government would allege that Nguyen planned to offer himself as a trainer of some 30 al-Qaida forces for an ambush against coalition forces in Syria, where he had already spent five months fighting with rebels.
"He would train them in shooting," Heinz said.
The judge noted that Nguyen was never a member of the U.S. armed forces, having been rejected because of a hearing problem.
"I don't see evidence that this defendant had any particular skill in firearms," he said, "or that he had the ability to procure or deliver weapons to these 25-30 individuals. This is the part of the case that escapes me."
Walker set a Dec. 3 trial date and urged the government to quickly analyze the content of eight computers and four cellphones taken from Nguyen's home.
As the judge pressed Heinz for more information, she said Nguyen waived his Miranda rights shortly after his arrest and began a series of tape recorded interviews that continued for 50 hours, much of it detailing his experiences in Syria.
"He confessed on the 50 hours of interviews," the prosecutor said, relating Nguyen's plan to go to Pakistan, fake his own death and assume a new identity "to be a soldier for Jihad."
The FBI operative told Nguyen getting a fake passport would be a lot easier than faking his death and offered help. The prosecutor said Nguyen filled out the passport request with a new name, Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum, and gave it to the agent, who sent it to the U.S. government which issued the passport.
The judge asked Heinz again to identify the resources Nguyen was providing to al-Qaida.
"He was providing himself," she said.