By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; C01
On the Saturday morning in late November when Ahmed Abdullah Minni left his Alexandria home, quite possibly forever, he did his family's weekly grocery shopping as usual. He bought the snacks his mother needs for the award-winning preschool she runs out of their tidy blue home. He stocked up on his favorite treats: Florida orange juice with no pulp, the oatmeal cookies and rice pudding. He carefully stacked the provisions in the fridge and kitchen cabinets.
He put on latex gloves -- his family jokingly calls him "Mr. Neat" -- and sorted the laundry for his mother. Around 3 p.m., he walked to the mosque just down the street for prayers with his father and brothers.
Then he vanished. To Pakistan. An American kid on jihad.
Around 5 p.m., his mother became worried. This was not like him. This was not the son she considered her right hand, the one who had called her from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond several times a day when he was a freshman, just to let her know he was going to class. This was not the son who transferred to Northern Virginia Community College last fall because, he said, he missed her and his family. This was not her Hamada, her nickname for him, who called her even if he was right across Route 1 at Wal-Mart, just to check in and find out if she needed anything.
"Where are you?" she demanded when he picked up his cellphone.
He told her he was in Maryland at a conference. He would be home Sunday evening.
"You better come home right now!" she said, furious that he would leave without permission. She started compiling a mental list of chores, such as raking leaves, with which she would punish him. She hung up. That was Nov. 28. She hasn't heard his voice since.
This Saturday, Minni, who turned 20 shortly after disappearing, and four other friends from Northern Virginia, Umar Chaudhry, 24; Ramy Zamzam, 22; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18, will appear before a Pakistani judge on five counts each of terrorism-related charges. The prosecution will call 19 witnesses, according to Minni's Pakistani attorney, who will say that al-Qaeda recruited the five men to help terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan fight against the United States. Each faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Hassan Katchela, their attorney in Pakistan, said the five have been tortured while in prison. "I am confident I will be able to prove that all the evidence the prosecution has is fabricated," he said in an interview. "They have nothing to connect these boys to any terrorist purpose."
That's certainly what the stunned families and close friends the five left behind want to believe. These young men, they say, spent their free time playing sports with the mosque's youth group, watching movies, using their annual passes to Six Flags, eating at Kebab Palace in Crystal City, studying with an eye to solid American futures.
But why did they leave so secretly and abruptly? Why has Ahmed written to his mother only that she must be patient, trust in Allah and not believe anything she hears?
"I am very, very sorry I left so suddenly," Aman Yemer, the youngest of the five, wrote his divorced father. But Aman, who has struggled with depression and other mental health issues, offered no explanation for his actions, his father said.
The parents want to believe there is an innocent explanation for their sons' decision to slip away, but law enforcement sources confirm that a video left behind by Zamzam, a popular and high-achieving Howard University dental student, shows the "same finger-pointing, spitting at the camera mumbo jumbo" that extremists often post on the Internet.
Some of the families, who agreed to speak to The Washington Post only after they lost contact with their sons, say they feel cut off by the U.S. authorities, even though it was the parents who first contacted the FBI about their vanished children. An FBI spokesman said the agency would not comment on "pending matters."
"Are they typical terrorists?" asks Mustafa Abu Maryam, the youth leader at the Islamic Circle of North America, a mosque in the Fairfax County section of Alexandria that the young men attended. "No. Are they thugs? Absolutely not. Were they brainwashed by some jihadi cool fad? Who knows."
Maryam has spent the past months going over and over what happened before the vanishing, wondering why he saw no signs that something was changing for these five young men he knew and loved so well. "They said they wanted to defend Muslims. To help Muslims. Maybe they felt that what they were doing here was not enough. I just don't know."
The one sign he said he wished he paid more attention to is that for about three or four weeks before the day he left in November, Minni no longer looked him in the eye.
* * *
Saturdays are the hardest for Ahmed's mother, when the shrieking laughter and bright crayon drawings of toddlers in her house are missing and there are no distractions. She wakes at 5 a.m. and sits in a hard-backed chair in her living room, staring out the front window, imagining Ahmed outside, parking his blue Toyota Corolla with the Obama sticker on the bumper. Wishing this were all just a bad, bad dream. She wonders if this is what heartbreak feels like, a heavy chandelier that's fallen on your chest, your throat so tight you can't even swallow your tea.
Since her son's face has appeared on TV screens and in newspapers around the world as a possible home-grown terrorist, she has seen friends and even some family keep their distance, afraid of being associated with them. She has worried that other Americans will turn against her and her family, all proud U.S. citizens. She has been so grateful for the smallest kindnesses, the parents of her students who sent her letters and cards, the neighbors who plowed snow from her driveway without being asked.
"This is the beauty of America," she says. Her tears spill like tiny pearls as she talks of her quiet middle son and what his fate may be.
"This is not our dream," she says again and again, head in hand, rocking slowly back and forth. "This is not what we wanted our son to be. I don't understand. What happened? Who did this to my son? Who did this to my son?"
She asked that her and her husband's first names not be used in this article, for fear of backlash.
She sits on the edge of Ahmed's bed, near a blue laundry bag of his unwashed socks, jeans and sweatshirts that she can't bring herself to touch.
For as long as she can remember, she and her husband, a transportation manager at Reagan National Airport for nearly 25 years, have told their children to be grateful to be American. They grew up in Eritrea in a time of civil war. They recall nights hiding under a bed as gun battles raged in the streets. Picked up by Ethiopian police one day, Abdul was convinced he would be killed. Released, he fled the country and has never gone back.
From the time his four children could speak, he said, he has taught them to be grateful for America's freedom. "This is our country," he said. "I always remind them about where we came from, how life is tough there. And the reason we came is for you to have what I could not have. We want them to have the American dream."
The Minnis never talked politics with Ahmed, never saw him pay attention to the news. When his parents railed against suicide bombers and terrorists who kill for Islam, he never argued, they said. "We spit on people who commit crimes in the name of Allah," his mother said. "He knows we think they're going to hell."
Ahmed planned to be a doctor or dentist. He was an officer in West Potomac High's Future Business Leaders of America club and was on the wrestling team. His parents have a file folder full of his awards and honor roll certificates. Not long ago, Ahmed asked his parents if he could join the U.S. military. His mother said no.
Last summer, Ahmed had his hair braided, something his parents considered too secular. They made him cut it off.
The screensaver on the laptop Ahmed took to Pakistan was the American flag, his parents said.
"What did I miss?" his mother says, rocking again. Her son was kindhearted, she says. He once finished praying at a mosque in New York and then gave a beggar every last cent he had. "I want to beat myself. What did I miss?"
His sister, 13, who thinks Ahmed is on vacation in Mexico, wrote him a letter recalling how he came to her school honors assembly and took her out for her favorite ice cream with sprinkles to celebrate her stellar report card. She said she was hurt that he hadn't come to her most recent assembly.
She received a letter in return. "Next time," he wrote from prison in Pakistan, "I will be there."