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Leaving It All Behind
Comments () | Published October 27, 2010
Zamzam and his friends Umar Farooq Chaudhry, 25; Ahmed Abdullah Minni, 20; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 19—all graduates of West Potomac High School—and Waqar Hussain Khan, 23, a graduate of Mount Vernon High, prayed together in a one-story mosque and youth-group center on the dead-end block of Woodlawn Trail.

The mosque is a small branch of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, which allowed the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—who has since been implicated in various terrorist attacks including the failed Christmas Day bombing—to preach from 2001 to 2002. Two of the 9/11 hijackers also attended the mosque, and at least three of the 19 hijackers looked to al-Awlaki for spiritual guidance.

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the sole gunman in the attack that killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago also worshipped at Dar Al-Hijrah in 2001 under al-Awlaki. Members of the mosque’s leadership have been accused of financing the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, details of which surfaced during the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, America’s largest Islamic charity, in 2007.

“We tried to create an environment where they could have fun, go swimming, play soccer, football, games—you know, teenage stuff,” says Abu Maryam, the youth-group leader. “We tried to make the mosque welcoming not just for religious teachings but also for discussing issues and how it is to be a Muslim.”

Whether in the youth group, at the helm of the Muslim Students Association, in his classes at Howard University School of Dentistry, or volunteering with the Obama campaign, Zamzam was a leader with charisma. He was an all-star at the mosque, a solid student, and a dutiful Muslim. He ran charity drives and led Project 500, a fundraising effort to build a new mosque. He never missed the five daily prayers, didn’t date, and longed to get married. He studied biology and chemistry at Howard on a full scholarship and spent the summer after his junior year studying for the dental admissions exam. He took out a $15,000 loan to fund his studies and enrolled in dental school in the fall of 2009.

Zamzam grew up with his parents and two younger brothers in a basement apartment in Alexandria and moved to the District after college graduation. His mother, who worked as a secretary for the Navy and as a receptionist at a Washington-area condominium, and his father, who was employed in Howard’s financial-aid office and was a receptionist in the same condo building, came to the United States from Egypt in 1990 with two-year-old Ramy. They won resident status in a “green-card lottery.”

Growing up, Zamzam and his four friends usually hung out at Umar Chaudhry’s home, a white house next door to the mosque on Woodlawn Trail. The mailbox once read geeks, a nod to Umar’s parents’ computer-repair business, called Geeks Data Recovery, which they run out of the house. Chaudhry, a star tennis player at West Potomac High, was studying accounting at George Mason University. His two older brothers are married to wives chosen from their parents’ hometown of Sargodha, Pakistan, where their mother’s brother still lives.

When Ramy Zamzam was in his first semester of dental school in the fall of 2009, he rarely came home to visit. Over Thanksgiving break, when he returned to the basement apartment in the suburbs, he seemed like his usual self: engaging and full of humor. The following Saturday, he told his mother, Amal Khalifa, that he was going to a Muslim conference in Baltimore. He assembled two sets of clothes and fetched a suitcase. Figuring he was going somewhere to blow off steam—he’d been working hard—she didn’t ask questions.

“The boys said they were going to some kind of Muslim conference,” Abu Maryam remembers. “That’s the only way they would get consent from their parents. We were all scratching our heads, thinking, ‘Why didn’t we get invited?’ But we gave them the benefit of the doubt.”

The five knew that a Muslim conference was one of the few weekend activities that wouldn’t arouse their parents’ suspicion.

The next evening, the younger brother of Zamzam’s good friend Ahmed Minni came to the house and told Zamzam’s mother that Minni and the other four young men had disappeared.

She didn’t believe it, so she called her son on his cell phone. He said not to worry and that he’d be home soon.

The families were concerned that Zamzam hadn’t gone to Baltimore. They turned to Abu Maryam, who suggested contacting the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic advocacy group.

“I thought it was the right move because we didn’t know the extent of their intentions and we didn’t know if someone else got ahold of them,” Abu Maryam says. “All of them were above the age of 18, but knowing them and with them being missing for so long, we wanted to notify law enforcement.” They decided to do so through CAIR.

That night, family members and community leaders gathered around the cherrywood table in the conference room of the CAIR headquarters on New Jersey Avenue on Capitol Hill. The families hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone. They were still in shock. CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad—who has been at the helm of the often controversial organization since its founding in 1994—called a few of his colleagues to the office.

Awad talked with the group for hours that night. He asked the parents if their sons had been behaving differently. Most said no. What about their body language recently? Their speech? Had they been making unusual demands? The parents hadn’t noticed anything.

Then, around midnight, the young men called. Perhaps sensing their parents’ worry, they tried to reassure them they were safe, but it became apparent they were overseas. The families heard different sounds over the phone than on calls within the United States. And though their sons were calling late on a Sunday, there was a lot of background noise. The parents surmised that their children could be several time zones away, where the work week had already started. They also thought they heard traces of a public-address system in the background. The young men might have been calling from an airport, they guessed.   

Awad drew two scenarios for the families. First, their sons could be in America and safe, but more likely, he told them, they were abroad. And if they were, their situation required quick intervention.

During the night, the families learned of the propaganda video Zamzam left behind on the thumb drive. Abu Maryam says they viewed it with representatives from CAIR. After watching, Awad said the government should be informed. CAIR called the FBI and put the families in touch with a lawyer. (Despite a once-close relationship, the FBI had severed ties with CAIR in January 2009 after the organization was named an unindicted coconspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, amid links to a support network for Hamas.)

“Considering the video, I think it was the right way to go,” Abu Maryam says. “When I was staring in the face of the FBI, that’s when it really came over me. Pick an emotion and I felt it. First I felt really angry, because I know personally how much their parents invested in their futures.”

Awad says that the families were very open and gave a lot of information to him and the FBI agents. Hours later, the agents were in the field conducting interviews. They talked with authorities at Dulles International Airport and began contacting foreign security personnel.

It would have been easier to guess where the young men had gone if they had a shared background. One was of Egyptian descent, one Eritrean, two Pakistani, and another Ethiopian. Authorities had to wonder: Had young men with different ethnicities found something else in common, perhaps ideologically, that had driven them together?

The FBI had to act quickly. A former senior intelligence official with knowledge of the case explains the FBI’s perspective: “Once the families go to CAIR and the FBI and tell the boys they want them back, the options start to get narrower. These guys know they’re being tracked.”

According to intelligence sources, it’s possible the US government had already been aware of the five men in Pakistan and might have been watching them in order to gather intelligence before the parents and CAIR contacted the FBI.

“An official told me that they had been tracking these five Americans through Pakistan, knew exactly where they were, and then they were somewhat surprised when the Pakistanis picked them up,” NPR correspondent Dina Temple-Raston said in a radio report on the young men.

NPR’s report, though, contradicts a conversation that Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach director at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, says he had with an FBI agent involved in the case. That agent, Abdul-Malik says, told him that “what really had [the FBI] so upset was the fact that they had no clue that the boys were gone.”

FBI officials declined The Washingtonian’s requests for an interview.

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