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Five young Americans arrested in Pakistan

The men, all U.S. citizens about age 20 who recently disappeared from the Washington, D.C., area, were detained in the Punjab region for suspicious activities.

December 09, 2009|By Josh Meyer

Reporting from Washington — Five young students who recently vanished from the Washington, D.C., area have been arrested in Pakistan, authorities confirmed Wednesday, raising fears that they are part of a recent wave of U.S.-based Muslims traveling to South Asia and other extremist hot spots to engage in terrorist activities.

Authorities did not release the names of those arrested but said they were all men, U.S. citizens in their late teens or early 20s. One of them left behind a video -- still being analyzed by authorities -- that shows American casualties, officials said. On the video, he says Muslims need to stand up and fight to defend their fellow Muslims, according to several sources familiar with the case.

In recent months, authorities have arrested or charged nearly a dozen other Americans or U.S.-based foreign nationals accused of going to Pakistan or Somalia for terrorist training or recruiting and financing those who did go. Authorities say it's an alarming trend that has put the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies on heightened alert.

In this case, the families of the five young men who suddenly disappeared went to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group. The families and the council "immediately determined that the FBI had to be brought into the situation," said the organization's spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper.

"Obviously, the circumstances were suspicious enough that we felt it was a matter for law enforcement."

The FBI and the Justice Department confirmed the arrests, but provided only broad outlines of the case because of an ongoing investigation by U.S. and Pakistani officials.

"We are working with Pakistan authorities to determine their identities and the nature of their business there, if indeed these are the students who had gone missing," said Supervisory Special Agent Katherine Schweit of the FBI's Washington field office.

The video found in Washington was being studied for content and possible clues about the men's motives for traveling to Pakistan, the FBI said.

A Washington-based Pakistani official said Pakistani police arrested the men Monday in the town of Sargodha in the Punjab region, a hotbed of militant activity.

Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy who has been briefed on the initial investigation, said one of the men is of Pakistani descent, another is of Yemeni descent and a third is of Egyptian descent. He had no information on the other two.

He said the men flew into the southern port city of Karachi on Nov. 30, continued on to Lahore on Saturday and made it 100 miles farther, to Sargodha, before their arrest.

"While the initial investigation is ongoing, there are many questions. Who they are, what are their nationalities, what was the purpose of their visit to Karachi and Sargodha, and what were their intentions?" Kiani said.

The men have not been charged with any crime, he said, but they can be held for at least a week while being questioned.

Kiani said the men were arrested because they raised suspicions, especially in light of Pakistan's heightened security after numerous recent militant attacks. "If a person is in a certain area where he does not have apparently any business there, he can be arrested and investigated," Kiani said.

The arrests occurred in the home of a relative of the Pakistani American student, Kiani said, but he could not comment on reports by a Pakistani newspaper that the home was owned by a militant affiliated with Jaish-e-Muhammad, an Islamist militant group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization because it has been implicated in numerous attacks on India.

Hooper said the families were in anguish, wondering why the young men suddenly left Washington for a part of Pakistan known for hosting militant Islamist organizations.

The Associated Press said one of the men is Ramy Zamzam, a dental student at Howard University.

Samirah Ali, president of the university's Muslim Student Assn., said the FBI contacted her last week about Zamzam and told her that he had been missing for a week, the AP reported.

"He's a very nice guy, very cordial," Ali said of Zamzam.

josh.meyer@latimes.com

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