A courtroom sketch of Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen. (NDN )
An Orange County security guard accused of plotting to become an Al Qaeda operative had been enlisted to train terrorist fighters for an ambush on coalition forces in a planned December attack, federal prosecutors alleged in court Monday.
Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, who was arrested this month boarding a Mexico-bound bus in Santa Ana, planned to make his way to Pakistan and reemerge as Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum, authorities said.
Nguyen, who lived with his family in Little Saigon, told agents he was set to train about 30 Al Qaeda fighters for an attack.
Agents said Nguyen traveled to Syria late last year and bragged on his Facebook page of killing at least one person. Prosecutors said he had honed his shooting abilities at a local firing range.
In federal court in Los Angeles on Monday, a handcuffed Nguyen sat attentively, the shoulder-length hair and beard he sported in his first appearance now neatly trimmed. He has pleaded not guilty, and family members have expressed shock at the allegations, describing the man as someone who was exploring religions and sometimes attended Sunday Mass with his mother.
Nguyen, 24, is charged with attempting to provide material support — "namely himself," the indictment says — to the terrorist group. He also is accused of lying on a passport application, making false statements about his name, his date of birth, his place of birth and other information. He is being held without bail and is set to stand trial Dec. 3.
During Monday's hearing, U.S. Federal Judge John F. Walter questioned a prosecutor for nearly an hour about the evidence against Nguyen, particularly whether he had the skills and ability to train 30 Al Qaeda foot soldiers, as alleged.
Walter noted that Nguyen had been rejected by the U.S. military when he tried to enlist because of a hearing problem.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Heinz said Nguyen told federal agents about his plans during a 90-minute interview.
"At that time he talked about his activities in Syria and also admitted his intent to train Al Qaeda fighters to execute an ambush against coalition forces," Heinz said.
Nguyen owned two guns, trained at shooting ranges and had a notebook with detailed instructions on how to train shooters, Heinz said. Nguyen also has a state firearms license typically used by those working as armed guards.
Prosecutors are expected to present evidence from more than 50 hours of audio recordings, video and Facebook posts in which Nguyen allegedly admits to killing at least one person during a five-month trip to Syria late last year, Heinz said.
Nguyen said he went to Lebanon and Syria for the purpose of helping the Free Syrian Army, according to federal documents. A Facebook page with the name Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum, the same identity Nguyen used on his passport, documented a trip to Lebanon last year and a risky crossing into Syria.
He initially planned on flying to Pakistan, faking his own death and applying for a passport in the country, Heinz said, in order to travel more freely as a Mujahed — jihad fighter.
However, an undercover FBI agent reportedly posing as an Al Qaeda recruiter told him he could apply for a fake passport instead. Nguyen also gave the agent a list of weapons he would need for the training, authorities said.
Nguyen was carrying $1,850 in Syrian currency when he was arrested, Heinz said. Agents reported finding three swords and a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" at the Garden Grove home he shared with his family.
His attorney, Yasmin Cader, said that the fighting in Syria is complex and several different forces are involved in the conflict that aren't linked to Al Qaeda.