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Pakistan looks at militant as key to Americans' journey

Investigators believe someone known as Saifullah recruited the five Americans through an exchange of e-mails. He then tried to arrange for them to head to the border with Afghanistan.

December 13, 2009|By Alex Rodriguez and Sebastian Rotella

Reporting from Sargodha, Pakistan, and Washington — The investigation of five American Muslims held on suspicion of having links with terrorist groups has focused on a Pakistani militant whom the young men communicated with over the Internet and who became their primary contact as they tried to make their way to Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities said Saturday.

As Pakistani law enforcement officials began questioning for the fourth day the close-knit group from a multiethnic, working-class enclave in Virginia, investigators sought more information about a suspected Pakistani militant they knew only as Saifullah.

Investigators believe that Saifullah recruited the Americans, some of whom were college students, through an exchange of e-mails in late summer and the fall. Saifullah then tried to arrange for them to head to Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border, sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Although investigators have not determined which militant group Saifullah was affiliated with, they believe he was based in Hangu, a district in North-West Frontier Province adjacent to the tribal areas where the Taliban presence is strong.

"They wanted to go to the tribal areas, and [Saifullah] was guiding them through e-mails and cellphone conversations," said Javed Islam, a police official in Sargodha, the central Pakistani city where the Americans were detained. "We've checked his location, and he's from Hangu."

The account police provided Saturday began to answer questions about how the group might have been radicalized. The story reinforces impressions that the journey was not well planned and shows, experts said, that the path to jihad, or holy war, is not straight or easy.

Unlike several alleged U.S. Islamic militants accused this year of training and plotting with Al Qaeda, the five men from Alexandria, Va., do not appear to have influential contacts in the extremist networks in Pakistan. Their difficulties are reminiscent of recent cases in which extremists were wary of Westerners, fearing infiltration by informants or rebuffing green recruits.

"I think these groups have thought about some of the recent high-profile cases in the media and they are thinking: 'Are these guys spies?' " said Evan Kohlmann, an independent investigator who works closely with security forces around the world. "Or are they so inept they could be a liability?"

The five men range in age from 18 to 24 and are U.S. citizens of Pakistani, African and Egyptian descent. They lived within blocks of one another in the Washington suburb.

They were arrested Wednesday in Sargodha, a city in Punjab province regarded as a hotbed for militants who have strengthened ties with the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Police say the Americans flew to Pakistan in late November with the hope of waging jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But the five have not been charged.

On Saturday, they were transferred from Sargodha to the eastern city of Lahore and were questioned by a team of Pakistani police investigators and intelligence agents, said Islam, the police official. A team of FBI agents had also questioned the men in Sargodha.

The detainees told interrogators that YouTube video postings by Saifullah depicting militant attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan caught their attention, according to Pakistani police. The Americans attached comments to the postings praising the attacks, and eventually learned that the videos were posted by someone named Saifullah.

Saifullah is a common name meaning "sword of Allah." Several militant chieftains in Pakistan are named Saifullah, but experts said it was doubtful that any of them would have communicated extensively with unknown Americans.

"It might be a recruiter with jihad experience, but not necessarily high in the hierarchy," Kohlmann said. "It could be an entrepreneurial 19-year-old."

The five men arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 30, stayed one night and traveled to the nearby city of Hyderabad, where they appeared at a madrasa, or Islamic seminary, run by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistani militant group with ties to Al Qaeda. The men asked to join the group, but were rejected, said Sargodha Police Chief Usman Anwar.

The Americans then went to Lahore, where they approached Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an extremist group affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant organization accused of engineering the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people. Again, the men were rebuffed, police said.

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