News & Politics

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

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.

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.

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 (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.

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.

Pakistan’s legal system, by American standards, is baffling. Corruption runs rampant, terrorism suspects are rarely kept in custody until their trial date, and those who actually make it to trial wait months, if not years, for the proceedings. Most militants fall outside Pakistan’s judicial system and are instead handed over to the military or the intelligence service, which often lets them go.

Militants linked to organizations with ties to the government, such as L-e-T, are known to slip away or benefit from the government’s blind eye. Terror convictions in Pakistan are not only rare but frequently overturned on appeal.

From the start, the case of the “DC Five,” as the young men are known in Pakistan, was different: It moved at an unusually quick pace and received international attention.

The accused also drew attention to their time in captivity. On their way to a February court hearing, they passed a note written on toilet paper from the back window of a van to gathered journalists. They alleged that they each had been tortured by the Pakistani police and the FBI, a claim repeated in letters home, which were passed to their parents by the State Department.

“We were taken to a place where I still don’t know where it was (we were blindfolded) and there were like 30 police and [intelligence] agency people who beat and tortured us,” Zamzam wrote to his parents. “We were not given food or water for I counted to be at least 36 hours and they wouldn’t let me sleep. . . . They told us not to say anything to anyone about what happened. . . . They even threatened to electrocute us the day before court so we don’t tell the judge but we spoke out and we did the toilet paper note so the world could know.”

It is no more uncommon for prisoners of the Pakistani legal system to cry “torture” as a swift and sympathetic defense than it is for Pakistani police to actually raise a hand against them. But as Americans benefiting from frequent visits from the US consulate and close media coverage, the men received better food and better treatment than their fellow inmates.

After word got back to the United States that the five had been picked up by Pakistani authorities, Facebook groups sprang up in their defense. Family and friends posted supportive messages; many recounted their favorite memories of boys who spent their days playing soccer, eating at Kabob Palace and McDonald’s, watching movies, and working out at the gym.

“In his presence, I never felt like I didn’t have an older brother,” one girl wrote.

“My mom misses you,” wrote another.

On the Facebook wall of the group Support Waqar Khan, a note reads: “i am the youngest brother of waqar khan. we were the closest of friends. . . .i miss him a lot.”

Talha Chaudhry, younger brother of Umar Farooq Chaudhry, posted updates to the 400 members of the Facebook group Free Washington Five. “They are being given good food and recreational activities, but a jail cell is no place for a human being to sleep at night,” he wrote one evening. “All is going well for the 5 brothers and inshAllah [God willing] we are working on finding 5 nice sisters for them.”

A month after that update, Pakistan made news by blocking access to a series of Web sites including YouTube and Facebook. If it hadn’t already become apparent, Pakistan was officially de-friending the West.

On March 17, the young men were officially charged with five counts in antiterror court in Pakistan. Authorities had previously let Khalid Farooq free. The prosecution alleged that the five men from Northern Virginia planned to attack an air base and the Chashma Barrage, a complex located near nuclear-power facilities in Punjab province. The alleged targets were near the Sargodha house where the five were arrested.

The trial began on March 31 in a closed court in a high-security prison in Sargodha and was off-limits to journalists and outside observers. There was a single judge and no jury. The five pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution presented testimony by 19 witnesses, who were cross-examined by the defense. They also presented printouts of e-mails the men sent to Pakistan, which the defense claimed had been fabricated, as well as their cell-phone records and maps. The prosecution also submitted receipts for evidence of financial support to a terrorist organization, which amounted to 6 and 12 US dollars.

A representative from the US Embassy in Islamabad was present for every phase of the trial, but there’s little evidence that the United States interfered with or influenced the proceedings, according to Pakistani media and American reporters in Sargodha for the trial.

“The United States government respects Pakistan’s right to conduct its own judicial process,” says a State Department spokesman. “We will continue to provide consular assistance to these US citizens.” The FBI refused to comment on the case.

When US citizens are arrested abroad, the consulate is limited in what it can do. The Privacy Act stipulates that the State Department can’t share information about the individuals, so details of the proceedings are gathered from Pakistani media and US correspondents stationed in Sargodha for the trial. Because the five young men chose not to waive their privacy rights, the US Embassy couldn’t speak on their behalf.

On May 15, the five young men submitted handwritten statements to the judge, which all five read nearly word for word. They wrote that the idea for the journey had been hatched in 2008, after the group watched the movie The Kite Runner at Chaudhry’s house in Alexandria. They said they were inspired to do charity work in Afghanistan. Zamzam wrote that when Chaudhry announced in the summer of 2009 that his parents had arranged a marriage for him in Pakistan, “Suddenly it was as if 2 things were linking up for us for our favor: We could go to Pakistan and enjoy ourselves and furthermore get an opportunity to visit Afghanistan and perhaps work at an orphanage.”

Aman Hassan Yemer, at 19 the youngest in the group and only a year removed from West Potomac High School, wrote: “It doesn’t make any sense that I would leave my family, friends, education and comfortable, happy life to live in a small cave.”

Minni, whose mother always called him by the nickname Hamada, wrote, “My only wish is to be back home and join my mom. She always taught me to be kind to the people and be peaceful. I never wanted to disobey my parents. I miss them and I wish to return home as soon as possible.” He said he and his friends had left secretly because they were sure their parents would never give permission. The five never mentioned why they had shown up on the doorstep of multiple homes operated by different known terrorist organizations.

On the morning of June 24, police vehicles in Pakistan swarmed the area surrounding the antiterrorism court in expectation of a verdict on the DC Five. The lone judge handed down a sentence: ten years of hard labor in prison for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks.

Prosecutors claimed that money had changed hands when the group met representatives from Jaish-e-Mohammed in Hyderabad, so each man received an additional five-year sentence for financing a militant organization. The sentences were to be served concurrently. They were also each fined 70,000 Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of $823, for conspiring against the state.

No one made a sound as the verdict was read. The defendants filed out of the courtroom silently.

Kahlid Farooq—Umar’s father and the man originally arrested with the group—told reporters that he was a lawyer by profession and that the evidence presented in court was fabricated. He and th
e defense said the families would challenge the verdict in Lahore High Court. The deputy prosecutor general of Punjab province said prosecutors had sought the maximum penalty of 25 years in jail. The prosecution said it would appeal to have the sentence increased.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy confirmed that the defendants have filed their appeals against Lahore High Court and that no date has been set.

US officials never filed an extradition request for the five to stand trial here, and there’s no public indictment for them in the Eastern District of Virginia, where they would presumably be tried on terrorism charges. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that a sealed grand-jury indictment—a common tool in terrorism cases—awaits the men on their release from jail in Pakistan.

Some experts suggest that by not advocating on their behalf, US officials are warning other would-be radicals that they’ll face foreign justice on their own. “Does the US want to send the message that if you’re young and foolish enough to wage jihad, we’re not going to bail you out?” Georgetown’s Bruce Hoffman says. “You have to be pretty zealously committed to put yourself in the same position, is the message that emerges from their odyssey.”

After years of constant pressure from the United States to crack down on militancy, Pakistan likely saw an opportunity in the case of the five young men. What better way to show a serious commitment to eradicating terror and get the United States’ attention than to arrest five Americans—especially five young men who could have acquired training and easily slipped back into America unnoticed?

Abu Maryam, the men’s youth-group leader and mentor for the past three years, is haunted by what he missed seeing: “The last time I saw Waqar, he looked at me and said, ‘Do you need anything else, brother?’ ‘No, Waqar, no,’ I said. ‘I’m good.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Okay.’ Then he turned around and left. But I wondered why he stared at me for a couple of seconds. No goodbye, no ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ no ‘I’ll see you in a couple of years.’ He just left. In hindsight, you can see things like this.”

Abu Maryam still can’t come to terms with the men’s abrupt disappearance or their intentions. But he’s skeptical of the charges against them: “What crime did they commit other than [voicing] the opinion that Muslims need to be defended? What does that mean? Were they going to feed certain groups of people or deliver medical supplies or raise funds? What type of defending? Why [did prosecutors] go to the extreme—that they were going to get weapons to kill people?”

Abu Maryam says he counseled the men repeatedly not to take up a violent struggle. He says he used to talk all the time about the benefits of being an American and contributing to society. “America may not be a Muslim country,” he told them, “but it’s the best we’ve got!”

“The video was not a farewell statement,” he says of the jihadi-like video that Zamzam left on the thumb drive before heading to Pakistan. “It was basically a speech.”

Yet doubts linger. Why were the five really in Pakistan? What might have happened had authorities not arrested them? If they were actually seeking training, might they have returned here, like Shahzad, to launch an attack in the United States? After all, following the Times Square bombing attempt, a similar “farewell” video of Shahzad surfaced online.

In the end, for the families and friends that the Northern Virginia Five left behind, there’s the grim solace that if their children were terrorists, at least someone stopped them. “The good thing,” says Abu Maryam, “is that they were apprehended before any crimes were committed. Nobody’s dead. The kids are alive.”

This article initially appeared in the November issue of The Washingtonian. 

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