There was a book left in a Pakistani hotel room where several young men from Virginia suspected of trying to join Taliban forces stayed. Called The Pact, that book tells the true story of three boys from a rough neighbourhood and broken homes who bond and eventually help one another through medical and dental school.
“This is a story about the power of friendship. Of joining forces and beating the odds,” reads one snippet on the back of the book.
It is also a story with a happy ending.
But the saga of five young men from Virginia — friends who grew up together and attended the same small neighbourhood mosque — has been anything but that, quickly turning from one of promise to despair for many of the family members and friends they left behind.
There is sadness in their tight-knit Muslim community, and anger. These were young men who grew up with modest means, still living in small homes and apartments with their families, but who, in at least some cases, seemed as though they were on track to achieve good things.
Some of the young men, who range in age from late teens to early 20s, have been described by friends and neighbours as polite, quiet, even kind. They went to public schools. Some were athletes.
Right up to the time they disappeared a few weeks ago, they regularly attended prayers 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-storey brick house tucked in a residential street in Alexandria, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
While 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 when just about anyone on the Internet can connect with terrorists and where 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, since 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. Saeed 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.
Meanwhile, for at least one other, Waqar Khan, signs of trouble-making 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 misdemeanour charge and received a small fine and a year of unsupervised probation. He was also ordered to stay away from the high school.
Farooq’s mother also told The New York Times that Waqar Khan, whose former employers included United Parcel Service, had brought $25,000 with him to Pakistan, significant money for someone in his circumstances.
Still, those details offer little explanation or solace to family and friends.
Erika Nelson, assistant general manager at the gym where some of the young men worked out, was particularly fond of 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 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 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,” 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 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.”
If the allegations from Pakistani authorities prove true, it will not be the first time that U.S. Muslims from the Washington area travelled to Pakistan to receive militant training.
In 2003, federal prosecutors charged 11 young men from the region with being part of a “Virginia jihad network” that used paintball games in the Virginia woods as a means to train for global holy war. In the end, 12 men were convicted on various charges, including several who went to Pakistan to receive training from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that the men saw as a steppingstone to joining the Taliban.
While the five men implicated in the current investigation appear to have been rebuffed in their efforts to receive training, the members of the Virginia jihad paintball group were accepted, in large part because one of their members, Randall Royer, had previously trained with Lashkar.
Members of this more recent group of five were much more low-key, and blended in more in their diverse neighbourhood, a mix of nondescript residential streets and strip malls with any number of common chain stores and restaurants.
They also allegedly contacted their Taliban source through YouTube, an online video service that terrorists are using as a recruiting tool.
That’s particularly scary to some Muslims, including Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and commentator in Washington, D.C., who often writes about Muslim issues on his Web site. He’s among those calling for more moderate Muslim groups to fight, or at least counter, terrorist postings on the Internet.
“These guys are essentially brainwashed pawns of terrorist propaganda,” he says of the five young men.
And he, too, is angry at them.
“These are wannabe thugs who are real-world idiots.”