ISLAMABAD — Five young American men now detained in Pakistan had sought to fight a holy war against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and were in contact with an Islamic militant in the border region of Waziristan, a suspected al Qaida sanctuary, Pakistani officials said Thursday.
The militant booked hotel rooms for the Americans in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, then broke off e-mail contact, possibly after learning that security agents were watching them, a senior Pakistani official said.
"These guys were actually planning to go to Afghanistan (to fight)," the official said. "He (the Waziristan contact) kind of dropped off the scene after booking them into a hotel in Lahore." The official requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly.
The men, all residents of the suburban Washington, D.C., included two Pakistani Americans, two Ethiopian Americans and an Egyptian American, the official said, adding that earlier reports that one was a Yemeni American were inaccurate. Their families had reported them missing late last month.
An FBI special agent and two U.S. diplomatic security officials questioned the men Thursday in the jail in Sargodha, about 120 miles south of Islamabad. Police arrested them Wednesday in a raid on a home belonging to the uncle of Umar Farouq, one of the Pakistani Americans, according to U.S. officials in Washington.
American officials declined to give details of the meeting or other aspects of the case. They emphasized that the five hadn't yet been charged with a crime.
FBI investigators were also reviewing a video that featured one of the men and quoted passages from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, expressing anger at Muslims being victimized in conflicts overseas, according to Islamic leaders in the Washington area.
The video didn't give a plan of action or destination, said Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, who viewed it. He declined to specify how he got it, citing the ongoing investigation.
"We are in the information-gathering phase of this," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We've drawn no conclusions. All we really know is that these individuals were in the United States until recently. And beyond that . . . we are trying to talk to them, find out, you know, what they were up to."
The FBI said four of the men were carrying U.S. passports. Discussions with Pakistani officials on the group's return to the U.S. were "still under way," it added.
Usman Anwar, the police chief in Sargodha, told McClatchy that the five men were seeking a link to an ultra-radical jihad group.
"It's above Jaish. It's something more serious than that," Anwar said in a telephone interview, referring to Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that's been implicated in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
"They came to Pakistan for the specific purpose of doing jihad (holy war) . . . They wanted to go to heaven, perhaps."
Waziristan, where they're alleged to have had a contact, is in the remote northwest tribal area bordering Afghanistan and is the stronghold of the Pakistan Taliban movement, a base for Afghan insurgents and a suspected refuge of al Qaida, which is thought to maintain training camps and other facilities there.
The arrests in Sargodha were certain to fuel concerns that Pakistan is a magnetic draw for Islamic extremists and would-be militants from around the world, including the U.S. and Europe. The case is the third since September involving an alleged terrorist link between U.S. citizens and militants in Pakistan.
While international attention has focused on Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups in the northwest, eastern Punjab province is home to older militant groups, some of which have developed close links with al Qaida. Jaish-e-Mohammad is based in the town of Bahawalpur, in southern Punjab.
The five Americans arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 30, officials said. They're thought to be in their 20s, and one is a dental student at Howard University in Washington.
Police seized literature and a computer hard drive, said Anwar, the police chief.
Sargodha is the location of a major Pakistani air force base associated with the country's nuclear program, and has twice been the target of attacks by extremists. Police, however, think the presence of the men may have been coincidental.
"One of the possibilities (is the air force base), but I really don't think so. The attack was something more acute and bigger," Anwar said.
He said that the men claimed they came to Pakistan because "they were about to look for a girl, to get married."
The men's families had expected them at home on Sunday, Nov. 29, said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the outreach director at the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., outside Washington. The next day, one of them called his parents and said he was leaving the country, without specifying his destination, Abdul-Malik said.
Ramy Zamzam, the Howard University dental student, was scheduled to take his final exams later this month, Abdul-Malik said. A student who fails to take the exams must repeat a full year of school.
"He's not from a wealthy family and so the family is riding on the hope that their son would do well in dental school," Abdul-Malik said. "To miss these exams at this time really casts a very dark shadow over their intentions, whatever they were."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. Shashank Bengali in Washington contributed to this article.)
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