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Pakistan says arrested American men hoped to join militants

The U.S. is more cautious, with an official saying the five Muslims from suburban Virginia apparently weren't on the verge of violence. They may be handed over to the FBI.

December 10, 2009|By Sebastian Rotella and Alex Rodriguez
  • Pakistani forces stand guard outside a house in Sargodha where five American Muslims were arrested and detained.
Pakistani forces stand guard outside a house in Sargodha where five American… (Rahat Dar / European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Washington and Islamabad, Pakistan — A close-knit group of five American Muslims from suburban Virginia had been trying to join a militant group in the Al Qaeda stronghold of northwestern Pakistan when they were arrested this week, Pakistani authorities said Thursday.

Laptop computers, maps and extremist literature recovered in a raid on a house owned by the family of one of the five in Sargodha, in eastern Pakistan, suggest that the Americans wanted to train for jihad, or holy war, authorities said.

The young men had communicated with a militant group and may have intended to travel to Miran Shah, in the North Waziristan region dominated by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, authorities said.

"They were definitely planning jihad activity," said Usman Anwar, the top police official in Sargodha. "The planning was almost complete, but we arrested them and their plot has failed."

U.S. authorities were cautious about characterizing the latest in a series of cases in which American Muslims are suspected of seeking to join militant networks.

A U.S. anti-terrorism official said it did not appear that the men had been on the verge of violence.

The men, whose arrests were confirmed by authorities Wednesday, have not been charged with a crime, officials pointed out.

FBI agents based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have talked to the men, who were in Pakistani custody, a U.S. official said Thursday.

"I would describe it right now as a fact-finding mission because American citizens have been arrested in a foreign country," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. "They are still trying to determine exactly what happened."

Conversations were underway about having the men turned over to the FBI, officials said.

A Pakistani Embassy spokesman in Washington said that on their visa applications, the Americans cited the wedding of a friend and sightseeing as their reasons for visiting Pakistan.

"One cannot say who their connections were, what was their purpose, what they were intending to do," spokesman Nadeem Kiani said.

The men flew into the southern port city of Karachi on Nov. 30, traveled to Lahore on Saturday and then to Sargodha before they were arrested after raising suspicions, Kiani said earlier.

Three of the men seemed emotionally overwhelmed by their arrest, said the anti-terrorism official, citing communications from investigators in Pakistan.

"I think they realized they were in deeper than they thought. They really want to get out of there and come home," said the official, who requested anonymity because the case remains open.

The five men are U.S. citizens of Pakistani, African and Egyptian descent and range in age from 18 to 24.

They worshiped together and lived in a working-class, ethnically mixed area of suburban Alexandria near a retail strip where a Mexican restaurant abuts a Chinese restaurant and an African American hair salon.

Their families became alarmed when the five left Washington for Karachi via London on Nov. 28, officials said.

Relatives found a videotape that depicted scenes of American casualties and a speech by one of the men talking about the need to defend Muslims, officials said.

The worried family members then contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim group, which set up a meeting with the FBI on Dec. 1, according to Ibrahim Hooper, the group's national communications director.

"To varying degrees [the parents] were upset, devastated and frightened about what they were imagining might be happening," Hooper said. "At that point we had no idea what was going on. We had warning flags that they had possibly gone overseas without their parents."

A U.S. law enforcement official described the families as models of cooperation. In addition to sounding the alarm, they shared their sons' computers and other electronic devices with FBI agents from the Washington field office, the official said.

One urgent avenue of inquiry for U.S. investigators is how the men might have been radicalized and encouraged to go to Pakistan. A U.S. intelligence official said there was no immediate evidence of any U.S.-based accomplices or recruiters.

CAIR leaders said they hoped this case could be a turning point in a sometimes "strained" relationship between American Muslims and the FBI.

"The FBI was unaware of this case and unsure this had taken place," said Nihad Awad, CAIR's executive director. "It shows the importance of partnerships between parents and organizations like CAIR and law enforcement authorities. . . . We see it as a success story."

U.S. anti-terrorism officials said they believe the leader of the detainees is Ramy Zamzam, 22, an Egyptian-born dental student at Howard University. He is a former president of the Muslim Student Assn. in the Washington, D.C., area. Zamzam arrived in the United States at an early age and became a citizen in 1999, officials said.

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