ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Police on Wednesday arrested five young American men from the Washington, D.C., area who flew to Pakistan last month with the alleged intent of enlisting with an Islamic militant group, Pakistani and U.S. officials said.
The five Americans were arrested in Sargodha, a dusty city in Punjab Province where several Islamic militant organizations with links to al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban operate, according to a senior Pakistani official and a U.S. official in Washington.
Both requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
It was the third known case since September in which Americans with ties to the Pakistan-Afghanistan region have been detained over alleged terror connections.
The group included three Pakistani-Americans, a Yemeni-American and an Egyptian-American, the Pakistani official said. Pakistani law enforcement officers had "continuously tracked" the men from the moment they arrived last month at Karachi international airport. All carried U.S. passports, he said.
They traveled to the city of Hyderabad, returned to Karachi, the hub of commerce in Pakistan, and then went to Lahore, the Punjab provincial capital, where they spent five days before going to Sargodha, he said.
One member of the group, whom he identified as Umar Farouq, was originally from Sargodha and allegedly maintained links with the Islamic extremist organization where the five sought to enlist, he said, without going into detail.
Several Islamic militant organizations are known to operate in Sargodha, including the extremists Sipah-e-Sahaba and a splinter group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Both are Sunni Muslim groups that have targeted minority Shiite Muslims but have also been linked to al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban.
Al Qaida, whose leaders are primarily Arabs, and the Pakistani Taliban, led by ethnic Pashtuns, are based in the country's Pashtun-dominated tribal region bordering Afghanistan. They've spearheaded an insurgency that has killed and maimed thousands of people in suicide bombings and other attacks since 2007.
Many experts are concerned about cooperation between the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaida and militant groups based in southern Punjab who were once used by Pakistani security services to wage a proxy war on India's side of the disputed Kashmir region.
The FBI said in a statement it was trying to determine if the five men were the same as five students from Washington's northern Virginia suburbs whose families reported them missing last month. The U.S. official confirmed, however, that they're the same individuals, as did Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim American advocacy organization to which their families turned for help.
CAIR arranged a Dec. 1 meeting for the families with Islamic leaders in northern Virginia, who then contacted the FBI, said Hooper, who declined to give further details of the case.
The U.S. official said there were no apparent links between the five men and another American, David Coleman Headley, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a Chicago federal court to charges he helped a Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, plot last year's terrorist strike on India's financial capital, Mumbai, that killed 166 people, including six Americans.
Headley, who was arrested in October, has also been indicted on charges of plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper that published a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
In another case linked to Pakistan, U.S. authorities in September arrested a Colorado airport van driver, Najibullah Zazi, and charged him with receiving explosives training from al Qaida in Pakistan's tribal area and conspiring to carry out a bomb attack in New York.
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY