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Leaving It All Behind
Comments () | Published October 27, 2010
Like most men his age, 20-year-old Ahmed Minni spent a lot of time on the Internet, especially visiting YouTube. He frequently posted comments on the videos he watched.

It’s hard to say whether Minni sought out violent extremist videos or stumbled on them. Like other young Muslims, he might have turned to the Internet to make sense of his dual identity as a Muslim-American or to sort out the conflict between the United States and Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe he was just curious. Yet whereas some Muslim-Americans watch the videos and see faraway atrocities against their Muslim brothers or fellow American citizens, Minni might have seen something quite different: the opportunity to engage in something bigger than his suburban existence.

Jihadi videos tend to follow a similar pattern: Footage of suicide bombers and attacks on American troops, most noticeably the aftermath of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen—the first major attack by al-Qaeda on US interests in the Arabian Peninsula—play in the background while a masked jihadi recites Koranic verses and says Muslims must be defended from Western influence.

Terrorism experts say that images and video are particularly effective in generating an emotional pull among teenagers, who are often very emotional to begin with and seeking validation or a higher purpose in life.

Imam Abdul-Malik recalls the reaction of one of his students to jihadi videos after watching them online: “He said that those videos will really make you feel guilty for not taking action. They’ll make you feel as if you’re not a Muslim if you don’t act.”

According to Alejandro Beutel, a government liaison at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, that reaction is exactly the point. “[People posting the videos] are ideological dope dealers,” he says of the producers of jihadi propaganda. “They know how to play on other people’s vulnerabilities and try to give people a high by playing on their sense of belonging. At the end of the day, it leaves a big mess.”

But spontaneous radicalization via the Internet is rare, experts say.  

“People are radicalized in real space and go to the Internet to reinforce the views,” Beutel says. “It’s an echo chamber.”

And though the Internet facilitates operational planning, it’s typically not the spark for radical thinking. Only after people get together and exchange ideas do they go online, where they find the material that validates their ideas and accelerates their tendency toward violence.

Once they go down that path, peer pressure makes it hard to back out.

Typically, people who have been radicalized will open up to a small group and no one else and will form tight bonds with their fellow ideologues. It was on YouTube that Minni met the true believer that set the Northern Virginia Five down their path.

Minni, US officials say, posted praise such as “God is great” in the comments section below footage of suicide attacks against American soldiers in Afghanistan. In August 2009, another person who frequently posted comments contacted him through YouTube’s messaging service. This man would turn out to be what intelligence officials refer to as the “closer,” the linchpin in a recruitment scheme. Minni and his YouTube contact kept in touch for months. The two never met face to face.

According to Pakistani authorities, Minni’s contact was Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a well-known Islamic extremist with ties to terror plots. After connecting online, Akhtar and Minni began communicating via e-mail. They shared the e-mail account ramadanhaji99@yahoo.com. (Ramadan is a month of prayer and fasting for Muslims, and “haji” is an honorific for a Muslim who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca.) Officials said that the two passed messages by saving e-mails in the drafts folder of the account, a commonly used method that makes it hard for law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept the messages.

Akhtar’s terror connections run deep, and he appears to have significant ties to the Pakistani government. He was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in 2004 for running a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and then arrested again by Pakistani authorities in 2008. Both times, he was released for unknown reasons—a not uncommon outcome in Pakistan, where the government and intelligence agencies often conspire with extremists.

Pakistani investigators believe Akhtar is responsible for the March 2009 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and a failed assassination plot on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto during her October 2007 homecoming parade. (Bhutto was assassinated two months later.) Authorities think Akhtar spent time in the United States because of his familiarity with American slang and geography, but they’ve been unable to trace any US ties.

Three months after Minni and Akhtar first made contact, the five young men left their homes for the “Muslim conference in Baltimore.” Not one told a friend or family member what their real intentions were. No one broke the code of silence. It may have been the final test of trust among the five before they set out on their journey.

They took a flight out of Dulles November 29 or 30, 2009. The exact date is hard to determine because it’s unclear whether the flight included a layover. All five of the men were carrying US passports. On their visa applications, they claimed they were attending the wedding of Umar Farooq Chaudhry. They also said they were going sightseeing.

The five arrived in Karachi, Pakistan’s southern port city, on December 1 and later said they settled in at the house of Waqar Khan’s grandfather. Khan, 23, had attended Mount Vernon High in Alexandria. Three of the young men shared a hotel room in Karachi.

Ahmed Minni’s YouTube contact became the group’s fixer and made arrangements and contacts for the group. He told them to travel east from Karachi to Hyderabad, 100 miles away.

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