As the country’s top law enforcement officials hailed the arrival of ISIS’ two most notorious murderers to face trial in the United States, prosecutors in Virginia were quietly working to secure the return of a group of five American citizens who’d fled the country over a decade ago to fight in a separate theater of jihadi combat.
In a sealed hearing that same day, prosecutors and defense attorneys met to discuss efforts to bring Waqar Hussain Khan, Ahmed Minni, Ramy Zamzam, Aman Yemer, and Umar Farooq back to Virginia to face charges from a 2017 indictment after the men fled to Pakistan to fight with the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist groups in 2009.
The hearing was originally listed as public but later designated sealed by Judge Liam O’Grady after an inquiry by The Daily Beast. The U.S. criminal charges against the men and the current attempts to extradite them from Pakistan have not been previously reported.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment. As did lawyers for each of the five defendants.
The men, dubbed internally by the FBI as ‘the Five Guys,’ spent over a decade in prison in Pakistan on terrorism charges after a 2009 arrest. But American prosecutors are seeking to try them again for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists based on an indictment filed while they were in prison, according to court documents obtained by The Daily Beast.
The charges and extradition push highlight the complicated nature of the government’s efforts to prosecute foreign fighters who have traveled across multiple international jurisdictions. The moves also point to a legal strategy which could be used against foreign fighters who fled to Syria, where at least one American is currently serving a sentence in a foreign prison for joining ISIS.
The five men first made news in 2009 when the FBI revealed that they had gone to Pakistan to fight with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-backed jihadist group most notable for its role in sponsoring the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, another al Qaeda-linked jihadist group with strong links to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Both groups, designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, are dedicated to overthrowing Indian rule in Kashmir.
Until they left, the Five Guys appeared to live normal lives. Ramy Zamzam, the purported leader of the group, served as president of Howard University’s Muslim Student Association and studied to become a dentist.
Zamzam left behind a video message, described as “chilling” by one top law enforcement official, which explained his reasoning for leaving the United States. While never released publicly, media reports at the time said it “showed scenes of war and urged that "Muslims must be defended."
The five men flew from Dulles airport to Karachi in early December 2009. Five days later, they were arrested by Pakistani authorities at the house of a relative. By that time, the defendants’ families in America had already alerted law enforcement to their disappearance and law enforcement officials began an effort to locate them.
A Pakistani interrogation report on group obtained by CNN suggests that the men were radicalized in part by jihadi propaganda videos online. Minni, the report says, would regularly watch jihadist media on YouTube and "praise the videos which showed attacks on the U.S. Army."
The case slipped out of the public attention after the men began serving their sentences in Pakistan, but court documents show that law enforcement kept up with their case. Prosecutors obtained an indictment against the group in 2017, which was unsealed in late 2019 without public notice.
American efforts to extradite the convicted terrorists ramped up in June when Pakistani officials asked that the U.S. government formally request extradition of Chaudhry and Khan while Pakistan prepared to release the two American citizens upon completion of their sentence and their payment of fines.
While the men face broadly similar charges in the U.S. to the ones they were already convicted of in Pakistan, legal experts say American prosecutors are well within their rights to bring conspiracy charges against them.
“That another sovereign brought charges against the same defendants is of no moment and of no deterrence to the Department of Justice,” Sabrina Shroff, a defense attorney who has represented people in a number of terrorism cases, told The Daily Beast. “For double jeopardy to attach, the defendants need show that they were prosecuted for the same crime by another sovereign, and therefore cannot be tried a second time for the same crime. Such does not seem to be the case here.”
The five Virginia men aren’t the only American accused terrorists held in foreign custody who could be open to prosecution on terrrorism charges on their release. Kary Kleman, a Florida man who converted to Islam in 2011 and moved to Syria in 2015, was arrested by Turkish officials in 2017 and sentenced to prison in 2018 on terrorism charges. Kleman’s sentence ends in 2024.
Court documents also show how the global pandemic has complicated the Justice Department’s efforts to extradite terrorist suspects. In an August court filing, prosecutors cited “numerous logistical and diplomatic hurdles that stand in the way” of the efforts to return the “Five Guys,” which were caused “largely by the current pandemic” as federal agents sought to transit Pakistani airspace alongside a layover in an unnamed third country amidst global travel restrictions due to coronavirus fears.
Prosecutors and attorneys for the defendants are due in court for another status hearing scheduled in early November.