Terror probe Americans were typical teens, says Mosque

Five young American terror suspects arrested in Pakistan were never exhibited any signs of religious extremism, their mosque's youth chief said.

"I never observed any extreme behaviour with them," said Mustafa Abu Maryam, who served as a volunteer youth director at the Islamic Circle of North America's small chapter mosque in a converted single-family home just south of Washington DC.

"I hope all of this is not true, and that this is not what it seems to be," Mr Abu Maryam, who spoke at a news conference following the mosque's midday prayer services.

"I never became suspicious that they were planning to harm anyone."

Intelligence officials said today the five Americans had been taken to a facility for terror suspects in the eastern city of Lahore.

They face further questioning in the city, a major base for Pakistani military and intelligence.

The men's families, all of whom are among the mosque's membership of 60 to 80 families and several of whom live nearby, reported them missing on December 1.

Pakistani officials took the men into custody on Monday and said they had admitted trying to connect with militant groups there.

But the US State Department said it was not yet clear whether the men had broken any Pakistani or American laws.

FBI agents have questioned some of the five as US investigators gather evidence that could lead to a conspiracy charge against them, an American official and another person familiar with the case said.

Mr Abu Maryam said youth activities at the mosque focused on keeping youngsters busy through sports and other activities. Religious discussions centred on basic issues, such as prayer and fasting.

"Our group discussions never talked about politics ... never talked about fighting against anyone," he said.

He declined to discuss the men in detail, citing respect for the families' privacy and concern about disrupting the investigation. But he said the men were fun-loving and talked about girls and other topics that would be typical for teenagers.

The men, now aged between 19 and 25, grew up attending youth activities at the mosque but came less frequently after starting college, said Dr Essam Tellawi, a gastroenterologist who gave yesterday's sermons.

He said in an interview that the men attended colleges in Washington, Richmond, Virginia, and northern Virginia, including George Mason University in Fairfax. One was a dental student at Howard University in Washington.

"We worry about their future," Dr Tellawi said. "I'm surprised at the whole issue."

He said the last thing one would think is the men would leave their colleges during final exams.

He said the men's families had attended the mosque since it was founded about nine years ago.

"We're all like a close family and we all love each other. We care for each other. So, this was a surprise," he said.

He said the families were now going through "severe hardship" and asked people to pray for them.

Mosque leaders say they teach a moderate form of Islam.

Relatives became alarmed when the men went missing and they discovered a video that a national Muslim leader who viewed it described as a disturbing farewell message. The families contacted authorities at the mosque's urging.

"This is our country. We respect the laws of this country," Dr Tellawi said. "We have been very co-operative with the law enforcement community."

Mahdi Bray, a spokesman for the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation who occasionally attends services at the ICNA mosque and has preached there, said the co-operation had paid off.

While Mr Bray has been critical of other government terrorism investigations that have targeted Muslims, he said in this case the FBI had not jumped to conclusions.

"It has been handled in a very respectful way," he said. "It could have been infinitely worse" if the families and the mosque had not come forward.

Dr Tellawi said the mosque hired a lawyer "to make sure our legal rights are preserved" and who could assist mosque members that the FBI wanted to interview.

"The law enforcement authorities have come to know that our community is a good community," he said.

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