Pakistani authorities hunt for alleged mastermind in plot to send N. Virginia men to Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops

By Griff Witte, Jerry Markon and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pakistani authorities on Saturday were searching for an insurgent figure believed to have aided five Northern Virginia men who allegedly tried to join al-Qaeda, saying the case could help unravel a growing network of terrorist recruiters who scour the Internet for radicalized young men.

Investigators have identified the man, known as Saifullah, as a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban and said he contacted one of the American men on YouTube, exchanged coded e-mails with the group, invited them to Pakistan and guided them once they arrived.

But the men, all Muslims from the Alexandria area, failed to reach the remote tribal zone that is al-Qaeda's home because the terrorist network's commanders thought they were sent by the CIA to infiltrate al-Qaeda -- and Saifullah could not convince them otherwise, a Pakistani intelligence official said Saturday.

"They were regarded as a sting operation. That's why they were rejected," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. The five men disappeared just after Thanksgiving and were arrested near Lahore on Tuesday. They have not been charged with any crime.

The developments point to the dangers posed by an extensive and sophisticated network of online terrorist recruiters, but also its limitations. Investigators and terrorism experts say recruitment worldwide has become far more Web-based, with recruiters playing a critical role in identifying potential radicals and determining whether they can be trusted.

Yet Saifullah's endorsement, secured through months of online contact with the five men, apparently did not carry much weight with Osama bin Laden's organization: It wanted someone who knew them better.

As a result, the five men wound up marooned in the eastern city of Sargodha, far from the terrorist haven in the forbidding mountains of northwest Pakistan that they were apparently trying to reach. Pakistani officials said the men were undeterred and kept trying to acquire the endorsements to gain access to al-Qaeda training camps -- with the ultimate goal of fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- when they were arrested.

The men, ages 18 to 24, traveled overseas without telling their families, triggering an international manhunt after concerned relatives contacted the FBI. The five -- Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 -- were transferred Saturday from Sargodha to Lahore, where they were questioned by the FBI.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday to discuss the men and the timing of what officials said will be their eventual handover to the United States. But Pakistani officials said they want more time to question the men in an effort to learn more about Saifullah and other radicals they may know.

U.S. law enforcement officials are considering criminal charges against the men, but they said that no charges are imminent and that a decision on whether to file them could take weeks. The young men's friends and spiritual advisers have said they never saw any sign of radical activity or beliefs. The men's family members in Northern Virginia have declined to comment.

If the emerging case, as outlined by Pakistan officials, shows the difficulties online recruiters can encounter, it was also clear that the growth of online recruiting poses unique challenges for U.S. criminal investigators.

Federal officials said they were aware of the threat and concerned about its potential to radicalize Americans who might meet recruiters online, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

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