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5 U.S. men had months of contact with Taliban, officials say

By Jerry Markon, Shaiq Hussain and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009; A01

The five men from Northern Virginia under arrest in Pakistan had exchanged e-mails written in code for months with a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban and had a map indicating they were bound for the tribal area where al-Qaeda is thought to be based, Pakistani police officials said Friday.

The men contacted the Taliban recruiter when they arrived in Pakistan Nov. 30, the officials said. The recruiter, named Saifullah, directed them to don traditional Pakistani garb and board a bus headed for militant havens in Pakistan's northwest, said the officials, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is unfolding.

The Americans, Muslims from the Alexandria area, were wearing the traditional dress when they were arrested Tuesday near Lahore. One had a map in his sock and had circled Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, the rugged area where al-Qaeda is said to be located, said Usman Anwar, the police chief whose officers interrogated the men.

"We subsequently informed our intelligence agencies," he said.

The revelations, if confirmed by U.S. investigators who are exploring possible criminal charges against the men, deepen the scope of their known militant connections and raise the possibility that they were recruited for jihad. Pakistani sources said Saifullah, whose location is unknown, had spent time in the United States and is familiar with American slang and idioms.

It remains unclear precisely why the men traveled overseas just after Thanksgiving without telling their families, triggering an international manhunt after concerned relatives contacted the FBI, or how serious they might have been about jihadist activity. Pakistani police officials continued to say Friday that the men contacted other radical organizations that have been banned by the Pakistani government but that those groups rejected the overtures because they couldn't find anyone to vouch for the men.

An attorney for the five, Nina Ginsberg, declined to comment Friday, as did family members. Muslim leaders said at a news conference at the small mosque in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County where some of the men worshipped that they never gave any sign of radical beliefs or ties.

U.S. law enforcement sources said Friday that they are especially focusing on the role and militant connections of two of the men: Ramy Zamzam, 22, and Ahmad A. Minni, 20.

Pakistani police officials identified Zamzam as the ringleader Friday and said he resisted answering questions for hours while the other four were speaking to interrogators. Sources familiar with the investigation have said that Zamzam, a dental student at Howard University who tried to raise money to build mosques in the United States, is the man in a video that the men left behind. Law enforcement officials said the video had jihadist overtones, and a prominent Muslim leader described it as a disturbing farewell statement.

Minni was identified Friday in a Pakistani police interrogation report as having been contacted by Saifullah, the Taliban recruiter, after Minni repeatedly praised YouTube videos showing attacks on U.S. forces. The report was posted on CNN's Web site. Its authenticity could not be confirmed independently, but it showed the men's passports and pictures of them in police custody.

A woman who answered the door at the Minni home down the street from the mosque shook her head and said no when told of the allegation. Family members declined to comment.

The three other men have been identified as Umar Chaudhry, 24, Waqar Khan, 22, and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18. Chaudhry's father, Khalid, was also arrested in Pakistan and is being questioned, authorities said. All six are U.S. citizens, and some of the young men were born in the United States.

The men were arrested because they were found in the home of an activist linked to a radical group that has been banned by the Pakistani government, Pakistani officials said.

Khan also had a brush with the law in Fairfax last year. He was convicted of embezzlement for stealing packages from the United Parcel Service store where he worked, according to police and court records. His one-year sentence was suspended.

The families have said through their attorney that they want the men returned to the United States, but it was unclear when that might happen.

Law enforcement sources have said the men will probably be returned to the United States, possibly to face criminal charges, but they indicated Friday that it could be a drawn-out process. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said Pakistani officials have shown more interest over the past two days in interviewing the men for broader insights into radical groups in that country.

During the news conference at the ICNA Center, the Fairfax mosque, Muslim leaders said they still have trouble believing that the men were pursuing radical activities.

"During my time with them, I never observed any violence or suspicious activity," volunteer youth coordinator Mustafa Abu Maryam said. "I hope this is not true. I hope it's not what seems to be."

Hussain reported from Pakistan. in Pakistan contributed to this report. Hussain and Witte reported from Pakistan.

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