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Americans held in Pakistan straddled 2 worlds

They had grown up in the same Virginia neighborhood and been friends for years. Some were in college now. Some had jobs. Some had Facebook pages filled with friends.
Pakistan US Arrests Probe
Police in Pakistan on Friday released these images of the Americans arrested there. From left: Waqir Hussain Khan, Ramys Zamzam, Umar Farooq, Ahmad Abdulminni, Aman Hasan Yamer.Sargodha Police Department via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They had grown up in the same Virginia neighborhood and been friends for years. Some were in college now. Some had jobs. Some had Facebook pages filled with friends.

Young Americans on the cusp of adulthood, they never revealed a hint of extremism, their families insist.

Then came a troublesome 11-minute video that contained war scenes and a message that Muslims must be defended. Next came arrests, in a city in remote eastern Pakistan, in a house linked to militants.

The five were in police custody Saturday in Pakistan, facing extradition to the U.S. and possibly terrorism-related charges.

So far, there is only a fuzzy picture of the five men from the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington whose families and friends portray them as innocent, decent citizens. It's a picture at odds with Pakistani police reports suggesting they aimed to get terrorist training there and join with the Taliban to fight against American troops in Afghanistan.

It's hard for those who know the young men to understand it all: how the friends who had attended a neighborhood mosque with their families suddenly turned up in Sargodha, an eastern Pakistani city that's home to a major air force base and increasingly a known pocket of militant insurgency.

Neighbors in Alexandria, Va., used terms like "good guy" and "friendly" to describe the young men.

"He's quiet, he doesn't talk much," said Brenda Cole, an upstairs neighbor of one of the five, Ramy Zamzam. "His daddy always helps me with my car. His mother always sends gifts for my kids. They're a nice family."

Zamzam, 22, has lived with his family in a basement apartment of a three-story brick building. He'd been studying at Howard University to be a dentist — where his younger brother says he's got a top 4.0 grade-point average.

The brother, who would only say his name was "Zam," paused as he unlocked their apartment door this past week, reluctant to answer questions about his missing brother.

Finally, he offered, "He's a good guy. He's a normal Joe."

Zamzam's bewildered Facebook friends set up a special page asking for help finding the missing students and praying for their safe return. Postings on the page earlier in the week said the Facebook friends were trying to raise awareness about the five men who "have been missing for some time now." The page referred specifically to Zamzam, but provided only partial or misspelled names of those traveling with him.

On Friday, that page disappeared from the Web.

By then, the students had been found, after a journey across Pakistan that ended at the home of one of the youth's relatives.

Student's father also arrested
Umar Farooq, an accounting student at George Mason University, was born in Sargodha. His parents, who own a computer store in northern Virginia, had recently returned there. His mother, Sabria Farooq, told reporters in Pakistan that she and her husband had come to the United States 20 years ago, but that they returned to Pakistan in September to start a computer business.

Her husband, Khalid Farooq, was arrested by Pakistani authorities along with Umar and the four other young men. It's unclear what the older man's role was in the episode.

No one answered the door, and all the lights were off Friday at the Farooq's white, one-story home in Alexandria, which is next door to the mosque.

Mike Miller, 50, who lives across the street, said he has spoken with the mother, Sabria Farooq, several times and talked to her children before.

"They seem like a nice family. I feel sorry for her. I'm sure she's going through a lot of misery right now," Miller said. "It's too bad kids do bad stuff," he said.

Less is known about the other three friends who made the trip to Pakistan, including the exact spelling of their names. Information from Pakistani officials has contradicted data on the student's visa applications and their passports.

  • Waqar Hussain Khan, is 22, and he was born in Virginia.
  • Aman Yemer, at 18, is the youngest of the five and was born in California.
  • Ahmed Minni, 20, was born in Virginia.

"He was always a very nice, calm and energetic guy. Never would hurt a fly," said Artis Borracho Rutledge, a 2009 West Potomac High School graduate who says he was good friends with wrestling teammate Minni. "All I can say is Ahmed Minni was a great guy, and I could never imagine him doing anything to this extent."

In a Facebook message to The Associated Press, Rutledge said Minni never shared any strong opinions about U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Minni wrestled at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, and according to the Web site,, he had a 24-19 record during the 2007-2008 season. Minni competed in the 130-pound weight class.

The group of five appeared to communicate online, and Pakistani investigators say they visited Web sites that showed attacks against the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Those Internet connections may have led them to Pakistan, where they reportedly met with representatives from the al-Qaida-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group in the southeastern city of Hyderabad and from a related group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore. Pakistani officials say the men were also in contact with a Taliban recruiter.

But their efforts to join the jihadi fight were rebuffed, because they were not trusted.

In northern Virginia, family friends, including fellow worshippers at the Islamic Circle of North America's small chapter mosque — a converted single-family home tucked into their residential neighborhood — can't believe what they're hearing about the students.

"They had jobs, they were in school. They were normal kids," said the families' lawyer, Nina Ginsberg.

Friends plead for the families' privacy, saying they are all in shock.

"I know they're very sad," said Dr. Essam Tellawi, a volunteer at the mosque who fills in sometimes as the imam. "It's very hard to hear about your son is missing."