Monday, December 21, 2009

There was a book left in a Pakistani hotel room where five young men from Virginia were arrested, suspected of trying to join Taliban forces.

Called “The Pact,” that book tells the true story of three boys from a rough neighborhood and broken homes who bond and eventually help one another through medical and dental school. It is a story with a happy ending.

But the saga of these five young men from Virginia — friends who grew up together and attended the same small neighborhood mosque — has been anything but that, quickly turning from one of promise to one of despair for many of their family members and friends.

There is sadness in their tight-knit Muslim community, and anger. These were young men, ranging in age from late teens to early 20s, who grew up with modest means. They still lived in small homes and apartments with their families but generally seemed as though they were on track to achieve good things.

Right up to the time they disappeared a few weeks ago, they regularly attended prayer services at the mosque. Then two or three of them would head to a nearby gym five days a week, “like clockwork,” a gym manager says.

At least two of them were in college. Umar Farooq — whose family ran a computer business and whose home has a small nameplate on it that says “geek” — was a business major at George Mason University. Another of the five, the soft-spoken but charismatic Ramy Zamzam, had just started dental school at Howard University. This past week, he would’ve taken his first round of final exams.

Instead, he and his friends were sitting in jail cells in Pakistan, not yet charged but suspected of trying to join militants who are fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“We had such hope for them,” says Mustafa Abu Maryam, the volunteer youth coordinator at the Islamic Circle of North America mosque, a one-story brick house tucked in a residential street in Alexandria, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington. Although the mosque is traditional, with a curtain dividing men and women during prayers, for instance, he and other leaders say they have always rejected extremism.

But that may not matter in an age in which just about anyone on the Internet can connect with terrorists and even young Muslims from moderate families can get caught up in what some call “Jihadi cool.”

These are “seemingly well-adjusted kids who are forming a subculture of their own — namely, the Muslim under siege,” says Saeed Khan, a specialist in Islam who teaches at Wayne State University in Michigan.

It is a scenario that has played out in Britain more than once. And some suspect it happened here, too, because one of the young men left a farewell video that mixed war scenes and calls to fight for Muslims across the world.

In this instance, Mr. Khan thinks the young men’s close proximity to the nation’s capital also could have influenced them.

“They feel a certain helplessness that, despite this proximity, they are disenfranchised from helping end the perceived violence against fellow Muslims thousands of miles away,” he says.

With the exception of one young man’s father, who was questioned and released by Pakistani authorities, the families have remained in seclusion, though they are fully cooperating with authorities. Their seclusion has, however, meant that details about some of the young men have been sketchy at best.

Very little is known, for instance, about Aman Hassan Yemer, a young man of Ethiopian descent who, at age 18, is the youngest of the five.

But for at least one other, Waqar Khan, signs of troublemaking had begun to emerge.

Between December 2005 and March 2006, Waqar Khan, now 22, was arrested for trespassing, twice at Mount Vernon High, his former school, and once at an unspecified location. Prosecutors dropped two of the charges, and Waqar Khan pleaded no contest to the third misdemeanor charge and received a small fine and a year of unsupervised probation. He was also ordered to stay away from the high school.

Erika Nelson, assistant general manager at the gym where some of the young men worked out, was particularly fond of Mr. Zamzam, calling the 22-year-old dental student and his family “very decent, loving, smart” people.

“I can only guess he was misguided,” she says, though others insist that Mr. Zamzam was far from an easily influenced follower.

“He’s the type of person that thought for himself. He was very bright and confident, and I could never see him as the type of person getting involved in such crazy stuff and the stuff the media is talking about,” says Said Ahmed, a 22-year-old student at Northeastern University who knew Mr. Zamzam when they were both freshman at Howard.

This was a guy who, according to friends, regularly passed out sandwiches to the homeless in Washington.

“He was more the person people looked up to,” Mr. Ahmed says.

Sebastian Evennou, who joined the U.S. Army this year after graduating from high school, was on the wrestling team with 20-year-old Ahmed Minni, the final member of the five.

Contacted via Facebook, Mr. Evennou called Mr. Minni “really dedicated” and said he would not have imagined he’d be arrested for something like this: “He never showed any hostility toward any American ideas that I know of,” he wrote. “He was even happy with the fact that I joined the military. And said he was thinking about it too.”

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