N.Va. men allegedly asked to join jihadists, Pakistan says

By Jerry Markon and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009; A01

Five men from Northern Virginia who were arrested Tuesday in Pakistan traveled abroad hoping to work with jihadist groups and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said Thursday.

The men contacted extremist organizations, including two with links to al-Qaeda, and proudly told their Pakistani interrogators, "We are here for jihad," said Usman Anwar, the local Pakistani police chief whose officers interrogated the men, all Muslims from the Alexandria area.

Anwar said police recovered jihadist literature, laptop computers and maps of parts of Pakistan when the men were arrested near Lahore. The maps included areas where the Taliban train. The men first made contact with the two extremist organizations by e-mail in August, officials said, but the groups apparently rejected their overtures because they couldn't find people to vouch for them.

U.S. officials said they are exploring possible criminal charges in a case that has morphed from a missing-person investigation prompted by concerned family members in the Alexandria area, who contacted the FBI.

"To prove something in a U.S. court requires meticulous effort, so we want to be cautious and careful not to characterize anyone as a terrorist unless and until we are certain that charges can be filed," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

But, the official added, "These aren't just hikers lost in the woods."

The case has prompted concern about the growing threat of home-grown terrorism, but U.S. law enforcement officials cautioned that they need to do a more-thorough investigation before they reach the same conclusions as their Pakistani counterparts. Some FBI agents are still en route to Pakistan, and agents on the ground there have not yet interviewed all the men, officials said. They are also continuing to review their computers and other evidence.

The revelations from Pakistan and the mixed signals from U.S. officials add to the intrigue over why five young men, with no apparent history of terrorist ties or activity -- men described by those who know them as devout but not radicalized Muslims -- went overseas without telling their families and became immersed in a complex international terrorism probe.

Their families and spiritual advisers say the men offered no hints that this was coming. "Their parents are saying, we had no idea. The youth director is saying, we had no idea. The mosque is saying, we had no idea," said Ashraf Nubani, an attorney for the ICNA Center, a small, dilapidated mosque in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County where the men met in a youth group and some of them worshiped. "There are two things," Nubani said. "Either they never did these things . . . or they kept this from everyone."

The men, who range in age from 19 to 25, were identified by Pakistani officials and sources close to the case as Umar Chaudhry, Waqar Khan, Ahmad A. Minni, Aman Hassan Yemer and Ramy Zamzam. Chaudhry's father, Khalid, was also arrested in Pakistan and was being questioned, authorities said. The young men all are U.S. citizens, and some were born in the United States.

A Howard dental student

Several sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said that Zamzam, a dental student at Howard University who did well in school and was involved in a much-praised project to raise money to build mosques, is the man in a video the men left behind. Law enforcement officials said the video had jihadist overtones, and a prominent Muslim leader described it as a farewell statement.

The video quotes Koranic verses, cites conflicts between Western and Muslim nations, and shows wartime footage.

Pakistani police officials said Thursday that the video, which was played for FBI agents and Muslim leaders at a lawyer's office last week, was one of several videos the men left in the United States. All the videos made it clear that the men were intending to train for jihad, the Pakistani officials said.

They said the men had contacts with Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jangvi, which the U.S. government has branded as terrorist organizations and Pakistan has banned.

Pakistani officials said the men were highly secretive and used only e-mail to contact each other. They saved their e-mails in draft form and used passwords to read them before deleting without sending them, officials said. Such tactics are commonly employed by al-Qaeda, terrorism experts said.

The case is the latest in a string of domestic counterterrorism investigations, including several connected to Pakistan. Earlier this week, U.S. authorities charged David C. Headley, a Chicago businessman, with conspiring with members of Lashkar-i-Taiba, an extremist Islamist group in Pakistan allied with al-Qaeda, to carry out last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

David H. Laufman, a former terrorism prosecutor in Alexandria federal court -- where any U.S. charges against the men would probably be filed -- said that if the allegations from Pakistan bear out, the case "underscores the persistent and dynamic nature of the threat of domestic extremism."

But he praised the families of the men for coming forward. "There is no better way for the FBI to have an early insight into an unfolding security problem."

Some possible charges

Legal experts said the emerging facts from Pakistan could expose the men to charges of providing material support to terrorist organizations, charges that law enforcement sources confirmed yesterday are likely to be considered. That charge has frequently been used in federal courts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the legal hurdles to filing it are considered relatively low.

"It does sound like they have the elements of material support," said Paul W. Butler, a former federal terrorism prosecutor in New York. But he said that without evidence that the five men planned terrorist acts or trained at terrorism camps -- which no officials have alleged -- "it's more difficult to prove that case, to convince a jury."

The dramatic allegations and diplomatic debate over whether the men, who were being held at a police station near Lahore, will be returned to the United States were preoccupying their friends and families.

The families have declined to comment. But their attorney, Nina Ginsberg, said they are "extremely worried about the safety of their sons and do not believe that they could have been involved in the kind of activities currently being reported by Pakistani officials. Their only concern is that their sons be safely returned to the United States."

Friends and fellow worshipers at the Northern Virginia mosque were incredulous that the men could have traveled for jihad. They were described as respectful and devout Muslims who gave no indication of radical activities or beliefs. They got to know each other through youth groups at the mosque but had gone different ways to college.

"These were regular people," said Essam Tellawi, a spokesman for the mosque, who said the men's families have been attending services there since it opened nine years ago.

Tellawi said the investigation began when two of the families came to the 6 a.m. prayer service Dec. 1 and said their children were missing. Mosque leaders contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which informed the FBI. "The last thing for you to expect was for them to leave in the middle of the school year," Tellawi said.

The families are well-known at the mosque and in the community. Friends said they work in a variety of professions. The Minnis run a day-care center out of their home down the street from the mosque. Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, the father being held in Pakistan, owns and operates a small computer sales and repair business called Geeks and Wireless. Neighbors said that's why the mailbox outside the family home has the word "GEEK" on it.

Michael Elliott, who lives down the street from the Chaudhry and Minni families, said the two families acted as mediators to resolve a conflict with neighbors over parking near the mosque during Friday prayers. The Chaudhrys went so far as converting a back portion of their home into extra parking to try to alleviate the congestion and appease neighbors.

"They're a nice family,'' Elliott said of the Chaudhry family. "One year, they even brought us a gift, a small token for Christmas.''

Staff writers Maria Glod, Annie Gowen, Hamil R. Harris, Spencer S. Hsu, Carrie Johnson, Mary Beth Sheridan and William Wan in Washington, staff writer Griff Witte in Kabul and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report. Hussain reported from Pakistan.

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