FBI and Pakistani officials are still investigating whether the young men — from left, Waqar Khan, Ramy Zamzam, Umer Farooq Chaudhry, Ahmed Abdullah Minni and Aman Hassan Yemer — sought to join a militant group. (Associated Press / December 11, 2009)
The five young Americans from immigrant families reportedly ‘never talked about politics’ or violence. FBI and Pakistani officials are still investigating whether they sought to join a militant group.
By Bob Drogin and Sebastian Rotella
December 12, 2009
Reporting from Washington and Alexandria, Va.
The bungalow-turned-mosque has no sign out front. It sits behind a Firestone tire store and across from a busy Dunkin’ Donuts in a working-class neighborhood in suburban Virginia.
Members of the mosque struggled Friday to understand how and why five well-liked members of its youth group went to Pakistan and were arrested on suspicion of seeking to join terrorist groups.
“Those are our children,” Essam Tellawi, the imam, said in an emotional sermon to about 30 worshipers after noontime prayers at the ICNA Center — which is affiliated with the Islamic Circle of North America. “I could never describe the difficulties and hardships that our five families have been afflicted with.”
The young men belonged to a group of 12 to 15 who often went camping, played basketball and performed community service projects.
“Our group never talked about politics” or waging war, said Mustafa Maryam, the youth leader, who has known the five since 2006.
In Pakistan, the Americans — ages 18 to 25, the sons of immigrant families from Pakistan, Egypt and East Africa — spent another day behind bars.
A State Department spokesman said Friday that no charges were pending. Pakistani and U.S. officials suggested that deportation was likely, rather than prosecution in Pakistan, because, they said, the men had not gone far with their aspirations when police arrested them at a house in the city of Sargodha.
But FBI agents and Pakistani officers still were investigating the men on suspicion that they had contacted militant leaders and planned to join an extremist group in the Al Qaeda stronghold of northwest Pakistan. Interior Minister Rehman Malik cautioned that deportation would not occur until the government was certain that the men had not committed crimes.
If deported, the five could face prosecution in the U.S. on charges such as conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists — often used against militants who try to join foreign networks, U.S. officials said.
The families of the men, who all lived near the mosque, pleaded for privacy Friday and did not talk to reporters.
“They are extremely worried about the safety of their sons and do not believe that they could have been involved in the kind of activities currently being reported by Pakistani officials,” Nina Ginsberg, their lawyer, said in an e-mail.
She added: “Their only concern is that their sons be safely returned . . . and they continue to look to the FBI and the State Department for assistance in securing their release.”
U.S. officials have praised the young men’s parents for making the agonizing decision to alert the FBI — an effort that distinguishes the case from other recent cases of suspected home-grown extremism.
The five families expressed their anguish to the imam two weeks ago, after the youths disappeared. Their worries deepened when they discovered a video message left behind, according to a U.S. anti-terrorism official, by dental student Ramy Zamzam, 22. The Egyptian American is thought to be the leader of the group.
In the video, Zamzam declared his plans to fight on behalf of Muslims, said the official, who requested anonymity when discussing the ongoing case. The video also showed images of American casualties, according to U.S. officials.
“I would call it jihadist propaganda: He talks about the struggle, fighting for Allah,” the anti-terrorism official said.
Members of the mosque contacted a national Muslim group based in Washington, which helped them secure lawyers and contact the FBI. The imam broke the news at Friday prayers last week, urging the congregation to pray for the youths and to cooperate with federal investigators.
“Even if people think this community is naive, we still hope for the safe return of these young men to their families,” said Ashraf Nubani, the mosque’s lawyer. He called them “wholesome, regular kids” who were “very polite.”
Umer Farooq Chaudhry, 25, lived next to the mosque with his parents, who run a computer business. A hand-scrawled “no trespassing” sign leaned against their white fence Friday. Farooq Chaudhry’s parents had spent time in Pakistan in recent months and were at the house in Sargodha where the group was arrested, officials said. Police also detained Farooq Chaudhry’s father, Pakistani officials said Friday.
Ahmed Abdullah Minni, 20, lived down the street from the Alexandria mosque. His parents run a day-care center out of their home. Aman Hassan Yemer, 18, is of Ethiopian descent, as is Minni, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
Waqar Khan, 22, another Pakistani American, had a minor criminal record for offenses including misdemeanor embezzlement, U.S. officials said.
The mosque plans an internal inquiry to see whether the young men were recruited by outsiders or had followed firebrand sheiks or extremist videos on websites.
“We want to know: What did we miss?” said Mahdi Bray, head of the Muslim American Society, an advocacy group based in nearby Falls Church, Va. “We saw these kids every day. In hindsight, what could we have done?”
The suburbs of northern Virginia have experienced previous cases of Islamic extremism. Anwar al Awlaki, the Yemeni American radical ideologue seen as an influence on militants — including the accused gunman charged with killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, last month — had served as an imam in the area.
A dozen local extremists were convicted in Alexandria in recent years of terrorism-related offenses, such as training at militant camps in Pakistan.
As they filed out of the mosque Friday, some worshipers spoke of the most recent incident in personal terms.
“It’s very disturbing,” Elmar Chakhtakhtinski said as he huddled in the cold. “It’s frightening to think that maybe the man praying next to you could be planning something truly terrible.”
Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Alexander Hart in Alexandria contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times