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Leaving It All Behind
Comments () | Published October 27, 2010
Jihadist recruiters typically provide advice on what to wear to blend in—sometimes down to the clothing color. They tell their charges not to take the cheapest buses, as those are more often searched by authorities. Sometimes they tell recruits to pack cigarettes and cologne in their suitcases; infractions of Islam’s mandate for cleanliness and restraint from women make the recruits appear less fundamentalist and thus less suspicious to authorities.

In Hyderabad, the five met with representatives of the radical organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (“Army of Mohammed”) at a madrassa, or religious school. J-e-M’s mission is to train terrorists and conduct operations aimed at expelling foreign troops from Afghanistan. The group is legally banned in Pakistan, but it operates openly and, American officials believe, with the complicity of Pakistan’s intelligence service, which was recently shown in a trove of leaked intelligence documents to have allied with Taliban fighters battling US troops. J-e-M, like al-Qaeda, has publicly declared war on the United States and has been linked to the Times Square bombing plot.

The five were not the first Americans to seek training in Pakistan. In fact, 2009 saw a string of major US terrorism cases linked to training in Pakistan.

Najibullah Zazi, a permanent US resident from Afghanistan, attended a Pakistani camp in August 2008, about a year before he plotted to bomb the New York City subway system. He was arrested last fall and in February pleaded guilty in a New York courtroom to conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country, and providing material support to a terrorist organization.

US citizens Daniel Patrick Boyd, a graduate of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School who was accused of leading a terror cell from North Carolina, and convicted terrorist Bryant Neal Vinas, from Long Island, trained in Pakistan.

Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, received explosives training from the Pakistani Taliban in 2009.

All told, US intelligence officials believe about a hundred Westerners have trained in Pakistani camps before returning to their home countries.

The Northern Virginia Five appear to have had trouble getting any of the extremist groups in Pakistan to welcome them.

The management of the Jaish-e-Mohammed madrassa refused to take the young men in. It’s possible that the YouTube contact’s word wasn’t enough to vouch for the group, or perhaps the organization thought the men were spies sent by Western intelligence services. Maybe they just didn’t look like a useful investment—after all, they had no military experience or weapons training, most of them didn’t speak the local language, and they had a Western demeanor.

“If the terrorists think you’re not a terrorist, that’s bad!” Abu Maryam, the youth-group leader, explains. “Two groups said, ‘No, you’re not like us. You’re not a terrorist. [You’re] jihadi wannabes.’ ”

The management of J-e-M advised the five men to visit another radical organization, Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, in Lahore. Corresponding by e-mail, Akhtar, Minni’s YouTube contact, booked the five into a hotel in Lahore. They never heard from him again; authorities believe he fled to Dubai.

J-u-D also turned the young men away because they couldn’t provide a satisfactory reference. It was, by all accounts, a bad time for a group of Westerners to try to infiltrate J-u-D. Considered a front for the more prominent terror cell Lashkar-e-Taiba, J-u-D often supported Lashkar members when the parent organization came under fire—as was the case during and after the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Both organizations were held responsible for training the ten gunmen who held Mumbai under siege for four days that November. Accused of scouting targets for the Mumbai massacre at the direction of L-e-T, American citizen and Chicago resident David Coleman Headley had been in the spotlight since October 2009, when US authorities accused him of plotting to attack the offices of a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The FBI charged Headley on December 7, 2009, just days before the five came knocking.

Even the fact that the five men held Western passports—precious currency to terrorist groups because they allow recruits to cross borders easily and slip into the United States with less notice—didn’t prove to be worth the risk of taking in the visitors.

On December 5, the men were on the move again. They went to the temporary home of Umar Farooq Chaudhry’s parents in Sargodha, a freezing flatland about a hundred miles northwest of Lahore. Chaudhry’s parents had been staying at the home, owned by his uncle, while they launched the Pakistani branch of their computer-repair business.

The press described the house as an “imposing” structure in an affluent suburb of Punjab province. The house is in a government-owned compound reported to have come with the uncle’s job as a mid-ranking employee in the local highways department. It’s located near a major air-force base that has been an extremist target in the past. The five still claim that they traveled to Sargodha to attend Chaudhry’s marriage, which his parents are said to have arranged between their son and his cousin.

Three days after arriving at the Sargodha compound, neighbors grew suspicious of the group of Western-looking young men, who must have stuck out in the community. According to Pakistani authorities, neighbors tipped off local officials.

Police picked up the five at the house and seized laptops, external hard drives, iPods, mobile phones, and maps. Later, rumors suggest that the house in Sargodha was used by Jaish-e-Mohammed, and prosecutors claimed that police seized extremist literature and found jihadist speeches on the young men’s iPod Nanos.  

Along with Chaudhry’s father, Khalid—who was at the Sargodha residence with them—the five were detained and transferred to Lahore. Police questioned them in separate cells. Pakistani police later reported that the Americans gave conflicting statements, and the young men would allege they were held 36 hours without food or water. For its part, Pakistan would later claim that the men were allowed to go home each evening.  

A two-agent FBI team arrived in Sargodha and interviewed the six men over the course of two days before handing them back to Pakistani authorities. On December 14, two weeks after arriving in country, the five’s long journey came to an end as Pakistani authorities officially arrested the five and Khalid Farooq.

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