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From student to spy, and back again

Fernando Jara was a Bakersfield Community College student who had converted to Islam before 9/11. Wanting to help root out terrorists, he went undercover and overseas. It changed him in many ways.

March 18, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

BAKERSFIELD — Fernando Jara is something of a star in Kern County — and a mystery.

From humble beginnings, Jara founded a program to rehabilitate drug addicts and felons on a five-acre farm. He is completing a master's degree at Claremont School of Theology and will soon begin work on a doctorate and a law degree.

The energetic 37-year-old and his wife, a Kern County supervisor and rising political star, attended President Obama's inauguration in January at the invitation of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

PHOTOS: Fernando Jara and Rockville Farm

It's an impressive resume for a junior high school dropout — with one exception. Five years are unaccounted for, and few people here know why.

In 2001, Jara disappeared from public view. He went on a journey that took him across the Middle East into the undercover world of Islamic extremism.

When he resurfaced, he was a changed man, for better and for worse.

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Looking back, the email that Jara fired off shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks 12 years ago seems laughably naive.

Jara had just come from class at Bakersfield Community College, where he earned a high school equivalency degree and was taking college classes. Daymon Johnson, a professor of social science and philosophy, lamented in class that not enough Arabic-speaking Americans were volunteering to help fight terrorism.

Jara immediately headed to the campus library and tapped out an email to the Central Intelligence Agency.

He boasted that he was just the man to help root out Al Qaeda terrorists: He had converted to Islam and knew some Arabic. He said he had sharp survival instincts because his heroin-addicted father spent much of his life in prison.

The message ended, "Perhaps I can get closer than you can."

Jara had not been Muslim for long. When he converted to Islam four years before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was but the latest in a string of transformations for the former east Bakersfield gangbanger with Aztec warriors tattooed across his chest and back.

"Twelve years ago, Fernando was in search of something to believe in," Johnson said recently of the man he considers a friend. "In Chicano studies class, he hated white America. In philosophy class, he became an atheist and liked to quote Nietzsche. In religious studies, he converted to Islam, studied the Koran in Arabic and grew a long Arab beard."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Jara switched core beliefs yet again. He went from zealous Muslim to radicalized American.

At the time of his email, intelligence agencies were eager to exploit an opportunity presented by the capture of John Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who had converted to Islam and gone abroad to join the Taliban. Intelligence officials believed other American citizens could pose as converts and infiltrate terrorist networks abroad.

Jara's email landed at the right moment. An FBI agent and a CIA officer drove to his home and enlisted the eager 26-year-old as a contract employee.

He was trained in California, Virginia and Washington, D.C., by Arabic language teachers, firearms experts, counterterrorism agents and retired Cold War intelligence officers, he said.

David Manning, 56, a law enforcement firearms instructor and founder of Tacfire in Ventura, said he began working with Jara in 2002 after the FBI called with a special request.

"They said he was under the radar and getting ready to go to Afghanistan to infiltrate the Taliban," Manning recalled. "I told them, 'I'm not doing this.' I didn't believe them.

"But then they came by and showed me their federal credentials," Manning said. "They told me I couldn't put anything in writing — and they were adamant about that."

In four weeks, Manning taught Jara how to fight with knives and guns.

On a recent weekend, Jara and Manning met for the first time in a decade. "You saved my life, Dave," Jara said. "You turned me into a one-man army."

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After training, Jara worked connections among Muslims in California to gain access abroad. His conversion to Islam had occurred under the guidance of Sheikh Salim Morgan, a blond, blue-eyed imam in Madera known for anti-American sermons. Aside from Morgan, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, Jara had come to know imams and Muslim leaders in Northern California, some of whom had known Lindh and opened doors for him overseas.

Jara said he followed in Lindh's footsteps, getting letters of introduction in English and Arabic from Islamic associates vouching that he had turned to Islam before Sept. 11, openly criticized U.S. foreign policy and could be trusted.

With a salary of about $48,000, paid by CIA subcontractors with no public footprint, Jara said, he infiltrated extremist networks in Yemen and Afghanistan that had assassinated foreigners and targeted oil tankers and U.S. ships off the Yemen coast.

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