Five American students, detained in Pakistan during a terrorism probe, are apparently the first American Muslim extremists to be tried by a Pakistani court.
On December 9, 2009, five Americans from northern Virginia were arrested in Sargodha by Pakistani authorities, who alleged that the men "were of the opinion that a Jihad must be waged against the infidels for the atrocities committed by them against Muslims around the world." One of the suspects rejected the claim that he and the others were terrorists, telling reporters that "we are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."
Pakistan's anti-terrorism court convicted the five students on June 24, 2010, with criminal conspiracy and funding a banned terrorist organization. They were sentenced the same day to 10 years in prison for the first count and five for the second, terms which will be served concurrently.
The men reportedly told Pakistani authorities that they planned to cross Pakistan's border into Afghanistan to fight against U.S. troops. According to their lawyer, the students wanted to "help their Muslim brothers who are in trouble, who are bleeding and who are being victimized by Western forces." Pakistani investigators have further alleged that the men, who reportedly spoke of the duty incumbent on all Muslims to fight against those who are killing Muslims, traveled to the region to attend terrorist training camps.
The American students – Ramy Zamzam, 22, Umer Farooq Chaudhry, 25, Ahmed Minni, 20, Aman Hassan Yemer, 18, and Waqar Hussain Khan, 22 – allegedly took separate flights from the U.S. and entered Pakistan with valid American passports and Pakistani visas on November 30-December 1, 2009. They reportedly traveled to Hyderabad to attend an Islamic seminary run by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), a Pakistan-based terrorist group that carries out terrorist operations against Indian interests, installations of the secular Pakistan government, sectarian minorities and civilians.
According to the Sargodha police chief, the Americans attempted to join JEM but were rejected. Initial media reports stated that Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, 55, who was arrested with the five other Americans, is linked to JEM.
An interrogation report issued by Pakistani police alleged that the students, who later traveled to Lahore, approached members of Jamaat ud-Dawa (JUD), a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. Pakistani police said the men were rejected by both JUD and JEM because they lacked credible references.
After their rejection from both terrorist organizations, the men reportedly traveled to Sargodha, where they stayed at a home owned by Chaudhry, whose son, Umer, was among those detained. Chaudhry's wife has told members of the media that her family was in Pakistan to arrange a marriage for Umer, a business student at George Mason University. At the time of the men's arrest, Pakistani police reportedly recovered terrorist literature and maps of North Waziristan, an Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold which serves as a center for launching attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Officials at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., reportedly said that the American students used Facebook and YouTube to connect with the Pakistani-based terrorist organizations before they left for Pakistan. According to the interrogation report, Minni, an American of Ethiopian descent, posted comments praising numerous YouTube videos that depicted attacks by the Taliban against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. These posts, according to the report, garnered the attention of "Saifullah," a suspected member of the Taliban who is also linked to Al Qaeda, who began communicating with Minni during the summer of 2009.
The interrogation report stated that Minni and Saifullah regularly communicated with each other via messages on YouTube. In an effort to ensure that their messages would not be intercepted by federal authorities, the men allegedly saved letters as drafts in a shared e-mail account, without transmitting the messages over the Internet. During these exchanges, Minni and the others made a plan with Saifullah to travel to the tribal regions near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
Family members of one of the detained Americans found an 11-minute video described by those who have seen it as a "farewell" statement. The video, which is reportedly one of several left behind by members of the group, refers to the ongoing wars between the West and various Muslim countries. That and other videos explained that the students had left the U.S. "for jihad" and would not return home, according to Pakistani officials.
The men apparently knew each other from the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) mosque and center in Alexandria, Virginia. They also reportedly participated in a youth group, the Young Muslims of Virginia, which is affiliated with the ICNA center. Zamzam has also reportedly served as the council president for the Muslim Student Association (MSA) of Washington, D.C.
More than a dozen American Muslim extremists indicted on terror-related charges in the U.S. in 2009 have traveled abroad to join foreign terrorist organizations. In February 2010, U.S. permanent resident Najibullah Zazi, who returned to the U.S. after attending Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan in late 2008, pleaded guilty to planning a terrorist attack against the New York City subway system. In a similar case, American citizen Bryant Neal Vinas was convicted in January 2009 of training with Al Qaeda, firing rockets at an American military base in Afghanistan and providing the terrorist group with information about New York City transit systems for potential terrorist attacks.