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Leaving It All Behind
Five young men from this middle-class Alexandria neighborhood packed their bags a year ago and flew to Pakistan. Today they’re serving ten-year prison sentences for terrorism. The “Northern Virginia Five” left behind a life of comfort and opportunity. Wer By Erin Delmore
Comments () | Published October 27, 2010
The young man at the podium with short, dark hair and piercing brown eyes is the center of the camcorder’s focus. He speaks slowly and confidently. He’s dressed in a sand-colored button-down shirt and pressed black pants, and each word he says commands the room’s attention. As he speaks, there are hints of mischief—a smile here, a playful verbal jab at a friend there. His young listeners giggle and hush, hanging on his every word.

The young man is Alexandria resident Ramy Zamzam, now 23, and the six-minute clip, posted to Facebook, is one of the last untarnished Web footprints of his image.

The Howard University senior is president of the DC Council of the Muslim Students Association, which in the video is playing host to the Battle of the MSAs, a “battle of the bands”–meets-quiz-bowl event about Islamic scholarship for area universities. Zamzam is in his element. He congratulates the men on the winning team with bear hugs and peppers his phrases with “Masha’Allah”—Arabic for “God has willed it.”

“Ramy is the type of person who would text you 30 minutes before and be like, ‘Hey, we’re having a food drive for the homeless—be there or be square!’ ” remembers his youth-group leader, Mustafa Abu Maryam. “And there he’d be, with 15, 20 brothers and sisters in an assembly line making sandwich bags. He just had this little battery on him, and I don’t know where it came from. He was always thinking beyond himself.”

This is the Zamzam of the Facebook clip.

And then there’s a second video, the opposite of the first, one not shared outside the top echelons of law enforcement. Modeled after popular jihadi propaganda, it runs 11 minutes. The same young man—this time without a trace of a smile—stands in front of the camera reciting Koranic verses. As images of attacks on American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan roll in the background, he says Muslims must be defended.

Some who have seen this video describe it as a “farewell” message, made in preparation for acts of terrorism that Zamzam and some of his friends—college-educated young men from Alexandria—planned to undertake overseas, perhaps against American soldiers.

“It’s dead-serious,” says a former senior intelligence official who saw the video. “You don’t get a sense this is a misguided kid.”

Zamzam left a copy of the video with a friend in Virginia on a thumb drive before taking a flight to Pakistan with four of his friends a few days after Thanksgiving in 2009. Viewed in a charitable light, the events that followed showed a youthful indiscretion that the young men probably will spend the rest of their lives paying for; at their worst, they were a terror plot only narrowly averted.

When Zamzam and his friends left home, they left behind a community struggling to understand why a group of seemingly friendly, well-liked, and well-adjusted young men from an affluent Washington suburb would trade their days playing basketball on Alexandria’s Woodlawn Trail for a trek through Pakistan’s dusty towns, knocking on militant’s doors. How could five young men from well-to-do families, who had no military training, no known extremist views, and limited funds manage to link up with two high-profile terrorist organizations? And how might they have been recruited over the Internet by a member of the Pakistani Taliban thousands of miles away who never met them in person and never walked the streets of their neighborhood?

The case of the “Northern Virginia Five,” as Zamzam and his friends are called, also presents hard questions for US law-enforcement and intelligence agencies because it appears to be the first instance of individuals being recruited over YouTube, the popular video-sharing site. The video Zamzam left behind attests to a fervor for doing harm—it seems to show that the five were successfully radicalized. But some experts question whether Zamzam and his friends ever had the means to accomplish their violent ends.

As al-Qaeda and its affiliates have come under increased pressure from US attacks in the remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, making it more dangerous for leaders to travel, and as immigration changes have made it harder for them to get foreigners into Western countries—such as the 19 Middle Eastern hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks—Islamic extremist groups seem increasingly focused on recruiting potential jihadis via the Internet and on recruiting Americans.

The Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, whose attempt to detonate his Nissan Pathfinder in May failed, was one such recruit—both American and located through an online forum. FBI officials and prosecutors believe he traveled to Pakistan, received weapons and explosives training there, and then returned to the United States to carry out his mission.

Whether the Northern Virginia Five were misguided kids whose sense of adventure took them too far or were potential bombers like Shahzad is the central question of their case.

“The video attests to their intention and desires, not necessarily their capability,” says Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.

Whatever the case, as the families struggle to make sense of what happened, they as well as terrorism experts and law-enforcement officials agree on one thing: Whatever the young men’s plan really was, they had no idea how badly it would go.

Today, Zamzam sits in a jail cell 10,000 miles away in Sargodha, Pakistan. The Northern Virginia Five are serving their fourth month of a ten-year sentence in a Pakistani jail on a terrorism conviction. Their sentence calls for “hard labor,” a term the Pakistani Embassy won’t explain further. “It is likely to mean long days of back-straining labor with inadequate medical attention, bad food, and miserable quarters,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

They were arrested by Pakistani authorities two weeks before the so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, brought terror back to the airlines last Christmas Day, and they were sentenced three days after Shahzad pleaded guilty to attempting to detonate a bomb in Times Square. The young men’s fate has been cast in shadow. But their life in America is an open book.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/27/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles