SARGODHA, Pakistan — Pakistani police arrested five American Muslims this week on suspicion of planning terrorist actions after Khalid Farooq, the father of one of them, turned them in, alarmed that they were determined to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials and friends of the family said Friday.
FBI agents and U.S. Embassy officials were questioning the five, ages 18 to 24 and all from Washington suburbs, in the central Pakistani town of Sargodha.
The five had an Internet-powered interest in jihad, or holy war, and had e-mail contact with a mysterious Pakistani militant, the police said. The men's planning appeared amateurish, however. Although police in Sargodha played up the Americans' alleged links to al Qaida and suggested they were involved in a major terrorist plot, the absence of radical connections may have thwarted their purported ambitions.
Police said that after searching in vain for a radical group that would accept them, the five ended up in Sargodha, where Umar Farooq, Khalid Farooq's son, has family links. According to the police, their Pakistani e-mail contact told them to proceed to North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's Taliban-controlled tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
The case has fueled fears about American Muslims, especially those of Pakistani origin, being drawn to militancy in Pakistan.
"They were ordinary guests, not terrorists," a woman who refused to identify herself shouted through the closed door to the compound of the Farooq home in Sargodha. "A big injustice has been done with us."
Police said they found extremist material on the men's laptops and iPod nanos with jihadist speeches.
The five were arrested here Wednesday in a midmorning raid. U.S. intelligence had tipped their Pakistani counterparts about the men, whom their families reported missing in late November. It was only after Khalid Farooq, 55, contacted police that they moved in, however. Police said they'd also detained Khalid Farooq as a precautionary measure.
"If we had got there even 20 minutes later, they might have gone, and then they would have been very difficult to track," said Abbas Majeed Marwat, a senior police official who'd interviewed some of the men. "Khalid Farooq informed the police about the designs of his son and his friends."
The older Farooq, a U.S. national, feared that if his son made it to Afghanistan, he'd probably never return, police said.
Khalid Farooq "used all modes to persuade them first (to stop). He used a harsh tone, he used a loving tone, he even locked them in the house," Marwat said.
All the men were friends from the Washington area. In addition to Umar Farooq, 24, Waqar Hussain, 22, is of Pakistani origin. His family came from the southern port city of Karachi. The other three are Ramy Zamzam, 22, born in Egypt, who'd traveled several times to Saudi Arabia, and two young men apparently of Ethiopian origin, Ahmad Minni, who turned 20 last week, and Aman Yemer, 18. According to Marwat, Yemer showed "repentance" under questioning.
Their Pakistani contact, a shadowy figure called "Saifullah" whom Pakistani authorities haven't identified, instructed the five to go from Sargodha to Miram Shah, in North Waziristan, via the towns of Mianwali and Bannu, using public transportation, the authorities said. He advised them not to take a cheap bus — as police check these more thoroughly — and what to wear to try to blend in with locals, even the color, authorities said.
Saifullah's instructions, written in fluent English, were the only remaining e-mail in the Internet account that he and the men used, police said. They all had the password to a Yahoo e-mail account, and would write messages to be saved in the drafts folder, Marwat said. Once read by the other party, the e-mails were deleted, a ploy to avoid sending messages that U.S. authorities could intercept, according to the police. The last message from Saifullah hadn't yet been deleted.
Police said the men's route to radicalism was watching jihadist videos on YouTube, an activity spearheaded by Minni, who regularly posted comments such as "God is great" alongside clips showing attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Through YouTube they made contact with Saifullah, who also regularly posted comments, but they apparently never met. It was Saifullah who'd urged them to come to Pakistan, authorities said.
After flying to Karachi on Nov. 30, they went to the southern city of Hyderabad and tried to enroll in a radical Islamic school linked to the banned Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, police said, but were turned away as they lacked credentials from any known extremist. They then tried to enroll for jihad in the eastern city of Lahore with Jamaat-ud-Dawa — a radical group previously known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the terrorist strike on Mumbai last year — only to be rejected for the same reason, authorities said.
Apparently out of options, the men went to Sargodha, where they seemed to have surprised Umar's parents, who'd traveled to their hometown to arrange a marriage between their son and his cousin, the daughter of Khalid Farooq's brother-in-law, Faheem.
It was at Faheem's house, a government-owned bungalow that came with his job as a midranking employee in the local highways department, that the men were arrested. The home is next to a major air force base that's been a target for extremists in the past.
"They (Umar's parents) came for the engagement, but the boys started talking about jihad. ... He (Umar) had something else on his mind, not a wedding," said a local resident who knows the family well and spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The senior Farooq has a computer business and imposing home in an affluent suburb of Sargodha, Aziz Bhatti. Umar's two older brothers, Adeel and Shakeel, previously had had arranged marriages in Sargodha. Neighbors said the parents visited frequently, but no one appeared to be home Friday.
Pakistan and U.S. officials said the men were likely to be deported to the U.S.
Pakistani police said the men weren't trained in combat or even in firing weapons, so they were unlikely to have been much use to the insurgents in Afghanistan. If they reached North Waziristan, however, they could have been trained and directed on a mission in Pakistan, perhaps targeting a place where holding a U.S. passport allows easier access. Sargodha Police Chief Usman Anwar said, "I would not say yes or no" when he was asked whether the men could've been used against the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009