Va. man pleads to terror charge after doing time in Pakistan

Apr 26, 2023, 12:19 PM

This booking photo provided by the Alexandria, Va., Sheriff's office shows Ramy Zamzam, a northern Virginia man who traveled to Pakistan with four friends nearly 15 years ago seeking to engage in holy war who pleaded guilty Wednesday, April 26, 2023, to a terrorism charge, but he is likely to receive only a 1-day jail sentence. The guilty plea from Zamzam comes after he and his friends spent nearly 13 years in a Pakistani prison after their arrest there in 2009. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)

(Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A northern Virginia man who traveled to Pakistan with four friends nearly 15 years ago seeking to engage in holy war pleaded guilty Wednesday to a terrorism charge, but he is likely to receive only a 1-day jail sentence.

The guilty plea from Ramy Zamzam comes after he and his friends spent nearly 13 years in a Pakistani prison after their arrest there in 2009.

Rather than seek additional jail time, prosecutors are recommending a 1-day jail term, coupled with 20 years of supervised release.

In a sentencing memorandum, prosecutors said that the time Zamzam and his friends served in Pakistan – on similar terrorism charges — provide an adequate deterrent and that no more prison time is necessary. But prosecutors are pushing 20 years of supervision, noting their ability to avoid detection back when they made their plans in 2009.

“(T)hese defendants managed to make numerous preparations for their trip without arousing the suspicion of anyone. Not their families. Not their friends. Not their classmates. And not law enforcement,” prosecutor John Gibbs wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

The sentence will not be final until Aug. 1, when Judge Leonie Brinkema will formally sentence Zamzam and another man, Ahmed Minni. But Brinkema has indicated in pretrial hearings that she did not see a need for the men to serve any more jail time than what occurred in Pakistan.

There is little dispute that the time in Pakistani prison was difficult. One of the five, Aman Yemer, began suffering serious mental health issues while imprisoned. His lawyer and family members say he remains virtually incapacitated and uncommunicative after his return to the U.S. Legal proceedings against Yemer have been proceeding under seal, but Brinkema has made clear she plans to dismiss the charges against him.

The court papers filed in Zamzam and Minni’s cases have shed some light on a case that stunned northern Virginia’s Muslim community in 2009 when the group of five departed the U.S. Several of the five were students, including Zamzam, who was a dental student at Howard University.

Once family members learned the five had flown out of the U.S., they reached out to the FBI, hoping the group could be brought back safely to the U.S.

But it was too late. The five were arrested in Pakistan in December 2009, after spending about two weeks there traveling to multiple cities and mosques looking for contacts who could help them across the border into Afghanistan and fight against U.S. troops.

Recent court documents show that the five were recruited to Pakistan by an online contact they knew as “Saifullah.” Saifullah’s real name was Jude Kenan Mohammad, an American from Raleigh, North Carolina, who was living somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Mohammad was later killed by a U.S. drone strike.

According to court documents, after the five Virginians made their plans to travel to Pakistan, “Saifullah” twice advised them to stay in the U.S., where they would be more useful to the jihadi cause. But the five were undeterred, and traveled to Pakistan, where they had difficulty connecting with Saifullah.

They spent their two weeks in Pakistan following leads and suggestions in their quest to connect with militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization..

According to court records, all five were arrested on Dec. 9, 2009, at a home in Sargodha, Pakistan. The arrest occurred shortly after a telephone call between Minni and “Saifullah.” Zamzam was 22 at the time.

The five Virginians left a farewell video to their families titled “A Final Message” in which they said they were obliged to defend Muslim lands from foreign invaders.

The video shows film clips of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and photographs of wounded civilians. Zamzam’s voice is on the video, saying “when Muslim lands are invaded, when Muslim children are terrorized, when Muslim women are raped, when our brothers and sisters are attacked and killed … jihad becomes, by the consensus of the scholars, … an individual obligation.”

Two of the five — Waqar Khan and Umar Farooq — are free in Pakistan, despite U.S. efforts to obtain their extradition.

“The Pakistani government is not always an easy partner to work with,” Gibbs said at Wednesday’s plea hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

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Va. man pleads to terror charge after doing time in Pakistan