KABUL - Pakistani authorities yesterday 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 approving of terror attacks on the Internet video site YouTube.
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 yesterday that Saifullah was unsuccessful in convincing al-Qaida commanders that the men were not part of a CIA plot to infiltrate the terrorist network. As a result, they were marooned for days in the eastern city of Sargodha, far from the northwest mountains that have become a terrorist haven.
"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. The official said the men were undeterred and were still trying to acquire the right endorsements to gain access to the al-Qaida camps when they were arrested.
The case of the five - who remain in Pakistan and are being questioned by the FBI - underscores the critical role of recruiters in identifying potential terrorists and determining who can be trusted, especially because the recruiter was unable to complete the introduction. The men - Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Umar Farooq, 24; Waqar Hussain Khan, 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.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence has made it a priority to try to place human assets inside al-Qaida. The organization's recruiters act as gatekeepers, keeping out those 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.
Evan Kohlmann, senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, said terror groups have become much more cautious in recent years about who they let in because U.S. intelligence agencies have become experts in their recruiting methods.
Terror groups have instead turned more to the Web.
"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.