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A Bank of America branch on the 300 block of Hegenberger Road remains open to customers, on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, the morning after an attempted bombing in Oakland, Calif.

OAKLAND -- Matthew Aaron Llaneza bragged to his accomplice that after blowing up a Bank of America branch in Oakland, "he would dance with joy." Then after an act of terrorism that Llaneza hoped would be blamed on anti-government militias, federal officials say, he planned to flee to Afghanistan and train Taliban fighters.

But Llaneza's co-conspirator was not, as he believed, a member of the Taliban. He was an undercover FBI agent, and that's why early Friday morning, Llaneza, a 28-year-old San Jose resident and former Marine, was arrested after federal authorities say he attempted to detonate a car bomb that they had secretly rendered inoperable as part of a months-long sting.

Federal agents swooped down on Llaneza near the bank on Hegenberger Road after he tried to set off the fake bomb using two cellphones.

Authorities were tight-lipped Friday about the bizarre scheme, which was thwarted by the FBI's South Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"It's a national security matter," said FBI spokeswoman Roselie Custodio. "That's why we're keeping such a close hold on this. But we want to make clear that we went to great lengths to ensure that there was no threat to public safety."

Llaneza made his initial appearance in federal court on Friday morning and was charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.


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Federal authorities were not allowing jailhouse interviews with Llaneza, according to the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, and attempts to contact his family members on Friday were unsuccessful.

But Santa Clara County court records stemming from a 2011 weapons conviction paint a picture of a deeply troubled man. The U.S.-born Llaneza, documents indicate, likely suffered from mental illness that included bouts of paranoia, suicidal tendencies, hallucinations and voices in his head in addition to a vast working knowledge of weaponry.

Those same records show Llaneza's father, Steve Llaneza, long had concerns about a son whom he told investigators had briefly served in the Marine Corps before being discharged for an undisclosed reason. He lived for several years with his grandparents in Mesa, Ariz., and graduated from Red Mountain High School there in 2003.

During his time in Arizona, Llaneza described himself as an "armorist" who was proficient in weapons assembly, and records show that in February 2008 he founded Sand Fire Tactical, which he described in its articles of organization as an "Internet sales, light manufacturing" firm in Mesa.

He had abruptly converted to Islam -- going by the name of Tarq Kahn -- before returning to California in 2011, living in a recreational vehicle in front of his father's North San Jose house.

Llaneza's father told investigators that his son had briefly served in the Marine Corps before being discharged for an undisclosed reason.

When Llaneza moved his RV to San Jose, his father gave him bathroom privileges but barred him from being inside the home unless he was there, seemingly out of concern for the three children he had with his second wife. That concern led to the father pointing police to the firearms that resulted Llaneza's weapons arrest.

Friday's complaint against Llaneza describes him as a detail-oriented person intent on an eye-catching act of terrorism that he believed would foment civil unrest. Court records in Santa Clara County seemingly set the foundation for those thoughts after he was convicted in 2011 for illegally having an AK-47 assault rifle and accompanying high-capacity magazines he purportedly purchased and registered in Arizona.

The weapon surfaced after a suicidal episode brought him to the attention of police, and further interrogations revealed Llaneza's prior fears that "secret police" from the government were following him.

That discovery came out of an emergency call on April 17 that year to the home of Steve Llaneza, who had recently allowed his son to live in the RV outside. Appearing under the influence of alcohol and marijuana -- with a history of hard-drug use -- the son threatened to kill himself and was hospitalized under a mental health hold.

Ensuing investigations by San Jose police led to them finding the assault rifle and magazines, which prompted officers to take Llaneza out of the hospital and into custody. He was convicted of the weapons offenses and given a suspended sentence after having served six months in County Jail.

During the investigation and a corresponding preliminary hearing, Llaneza was described as being in and out of mental-health treatment and self-medicating with medically-obtained marijuana.

He told interrogating officers about suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from what he said were attempts by Arizona gangs to recruit him, expressing a fear of drug cartels and saying, "Someday you are going to find me dead in the desert."

Court documents state Llaneza took Zyprexa for bipolar disorder and Remeron, an antidepressant. A note attached to the court file said his hallucinations would go away when he took the medication. His recommended sentence after his 2011 arrest included a requirement that he "take medication prescribed for psychosis, bipolar disorder condition as directed by the mental health doctors."

In the criminal complaint of the foiled bombing, Llaneza is described as supporting the Taliban and wanting to engage in jihad.

Authorities allege that Llaneza believed blowing up the bank would "trigger a governmental crackdown, which he expected would trigger a right-wing counter-response against the government followed by, he hoped, civil war."

During the planning of the attack, Llaneza also allegedly said "he would dance with joy when the bomb exploded." After the attack, Llaneza reportedly had intended to flee by boat to Pakistan and then travel to Afghanistan to train with Taliban fighters.

He met Nov. 30 with the undercover agent who had led him to believe he was connected with the Taliban and mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Llaneza proposed a car-bomb attack on a Bay Area bank, according to authorities.

Llaneza suggested attacking the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or another unspecified bank in the area. He later decided there would too much security at the Federal Reserve Bank and began scouting Bank of America locations in Oakland -- both because of the symbolism of the name and his belief of Oakland being a center of protests, the complaint states.

He chose the Hegenberger Road location after research that included viewing aerial imagery of the building and its surroundings. Llaneza also suggested renting a Hayward storage facility unit to assemble the bomb, authorities stated. On Jan. 26, Llaneza and the undercover agent loaded into the SUV a dozen 5-gallon buckets containing chemicals prepared by the FBI to simulate an explosive mixture.

On Thursday night, the complaint continues, Llaneza and the undercover agent took separate vehicles to a Union City parking lot to complete the assembly of the fake device. Llaneza then drove the SUV to the bank, parked next to a supporting column and beneath an overhang in hopes the explosion would bring down the building. The undercover FBI agent met him there, and they walked a safe distance away to set off the bomb.

Llaneza was arrested after it failed to detonate.

The same bank, not far from Oakland International Airport, was the site of a bombing more than four decades ago by activists during the Vietnam War. The blast on May 24, 1971, shattered 15 windows, but no injuries were reported. In the early 1970s, three dozen branches of Bank of America were bombed and burned across the country.

But Friday, it was business as usual at the four-story tan building. Customers seemed unaware of the bombing plot.

Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said Friday that the company is "cooperating with law enforcement. Nothing to add beyond that."

Meanwhile, a civil rights group questioned whether the sting had entrapped someone who might not have seriously considered a terrorist act without the help of authorities.

"Unfortunately, in recent years, we see the FBI targeting vulnerable individuals and essentially creating a plot, then thwarting it, to call it a win," said Zahra Billoo, the Bay Area spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It's the FBI's job to stop people who are operational terrorists. It's not the FBI's job to find people who are aspirational terrorists."

Billoo said it was too early to conclude if it was Llaneza or the FBI who initiated the plan, but she said the operation resembled similar arrests in other parts of the country.

"If they are spending all this time and energy and resources to create terrorists to then thwart," she said, "who's paying attention to the actual terrorists, the actual criminals?"

Staff writers Josh Richman, Matt O'Brien, Erin Ivie, Kristin Bender, Mark Gomez, Veronica Martinez and Leigh Poitinger contributed to this report. Contact Mark Emmons at memmons@mercurynews.com and Robert Salonga at rsolonga@mercurynews.com.