Five American Muslims arrested in Pakistan tried to join al-Qaida but were turned down because they lacked references from trusted militants, police said today.
Regional chief Javed Islam said the men wanted to join militants in Pakistan’s tribal area before crossing into Afghanistan and said they met two banned military organisations.
And Usman Anwar, local police chief in the eastern city of Sargodha, said that the five were “directly connected” to the al Qaida terrorist network.
“They are proudly saying they are here for jihad” or holy war, he said.
A key break in the case came not from federal agents or spies, but parents worried their sons may have made a terrible decision.
The families, based in the Washington area, were particularly concerned after watching what was described as a disturbing farewell video from the young men, showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended.
“One person appeared in that video and they made references to the ongoing conflict in the world and that young Muslims have to do something,” said Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The video has not been made public.
After the disappearance of the five men in late November, their families, members of the local Muslim community, sought help from CAIR, which put them in touch with the FBI and got them a lawyer.
The men range in age from 19 to 25. One, Ramy Zamzam, is a dental student at Washington’s Howard University. Pakistani police officer Tahir Gujjar identified the others under arrest as Eman Yasir, Waqar Hasan, Umer Farooq and Khalid Farooq.
They were arrested yesterday at a house in Sargodha linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammed organisation.
Investigators are sharing their findings with FBI officials now in Sargodha.
On the heels of charges against a Chicago man accused of plotting international terrorism, the case is another sign that Americans can be recruited within the United States to enlist in terrorist networks.
President Barack Obama declined to talk specifically about the case today, but said, “We have to constantly be mindful that some of these twisted ideologies are available over the internet.”
Mr Obama, in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, also praised “the extraordinary contributions of the Muslim-American community, and how they have been woven into the fabric of our nation in a seamless fashion.”
A Muslim leader in the state of Virginia said the five men did not seem to have become militant before they left the US
“From all of our interviews, there was no sign they were outwardly radicalised,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik.
Pakistan has many militant groups based in its territory and the US has been pressing the government to crack down on extremism. Al-Qaida and Taliban militants are believed to be hiding in lawless tribal areas near the Afghan border.
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s local office said agents have been trying to help find the men.
“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 the spokeswoman, Katherine Schweit.
According to officials at CAIR, the five left the country at the end of November without telling their families.