Pakistani authorities on Saturday zeroed in on the alleged mastermind of a plot to send five northern Virginia men to Afghanistan to kill U.S. troops, saying they hope the case could help unravel an extensive network of terrorist recruiters who scour the Internet for radicalized young men.
Investigators said they were hunting for a shadowy insurgent figure known as Saifullah, who invited the men to Pakistan after first discovering them when one made comments on the Internet video site YouTube approving of terror attacks.
A Pakistani police official involved in the investigation said that Saifullah — officials are unsure if it is his real name — is a member of the Pakistani Taliban, and that he first contacted the men in August. They exchanged coded e-mail messages for months thereafter. Saifullah is believed to have spent time in the United States because of his familiarity with American slang and geography.
Saifullah guided the men once they were in Pakistan, attempting to help them reach the remote area in Pakistan's tribal belt that is home to al-Qaida and its terrorist training camps.
But a Pakistani intelligence official who had been briefed on the case said Saturday that Saifullah was unsuccessful in convincing al-Qaida commanders that the men were not part of a CIA plot to infiltrate the terrorist network. "They were regarded as a sting operation. That's why they were rejected," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
As a result, they were marooned for days in the eastern city of Sargodha, far from the forbidding mountains of the northwest that have become a terrorist haven.
The men — Ramy Zamzam, 22, Ahmad Minni, 20, Umar Farooq, 24, Waqar Hussain, 22, and Aman Yemer, 18 — have not been charged with a crime. But investigators say they have proudly admitted to flying to Pakistan on Nov. 30 to join the jihad, or holy war, against American forces in Afghanistan. The men told investigators that Saifullah was the only one who welcomed them in Pakistan and that they were rejected by at least two other extremist groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Law enforcement authorities have said they likely would not have uncovered the men's plans so quickly had it not been for family members who expressed concern when the men went missing. At least one of the men left behind a video described as containing jihadi overtones.
The case has surprised leaders of the mosque in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, who said they had never seen the men expressing radical beliefs.
The five were shifted from Sargodha on Saturday to the provincial capital of Lahore, where they continued to face questioning. Pakistani officials said the men would ultimately be sent back to the United States to face charges.
The case of the five — who are also being questioned by the FBI — underscores the critical role of recruiters in identifying potential terrorists and, perhaps more importantly, determining who can be trusted.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. intelligence has made it a top priority to try to place human assets inside al-Qaida. The organization's recruiters act as gatekeepers, keeping out those who are not serious about their commitment to holy war, and those who could be spies.
Would-be American recruits are treated by al-Qaida with special scrutiny, analysts said. But they are also considered enormously appealing to the group because of their potential to access U.S. targets and because of their propaganda value.
But Evan Kohlmann, senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, said terror groups have also become much more cautious in recent years about whom they allow in because U.S. intelligence agencies have become experts in their recruiting methods.
"If you're trying to sink someone into these groups, what better way than to follow the recruitment model that so many have already followed?" Kohlmann said.
The model is one that has become far more Web-based.
"Increasingly, recruiters are taking less prominent roles in mosques and community centers because places like that are under scrutiny. So what these guys are doing is turning to the Internet," Kohlmann said.
Terror group operatives, and even freelance recruiters, troll jihadi social-networking sites, attempting to establish relationships with young men who seem ideologically committed, and physically able, to commit violence in the name of radical Islam.
But Kohlmann said the case of the five from northern Virginia was unusual because they were identified on a site with mass appeal.
"The idea that YouTube would be a mechanism for making these connections, that's something new," he said, adding that it could be a troubling development for law enforcement because such sites are so vast they are difficult to monitor.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday to discuss the five and the timing of their handover to the United States, Pakistani officials said.