By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Five young men from Northern Virginia have been arrested in Pakistan at the home of a man linked to a radical jihadist group, and Pakistani authorities are questioning them about any possible links to terrorism, diplomatic and law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
The men, all Muslims from the Alexandria area, were reported missing by their families last week and taken into custody near Lahore on Monday. One of them left behind a video that quoted Koranic verses, cited conflicts between Western and Muslim nations and showed wartime footage. A Muslim leader described it Wednesday as a farewell statement. Law enforcement sources said the video had jihadist overtones but cautioned that they had no evidence it was intended as a farewell. They said they had no information about the men's intentions.
Law enforcement officials also said they had no evidence that the men had been trained at terror camps or were planning an attack. But the arrests came at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism after the recent shootings at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base and charges filed this week against a Chicago man accused of playing a role in last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The men were taken into custody at the home of an activist affiliated with a radical group that has been banned by the Pakistani government, an official at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said. A second Pakistani official said the group is Jaish-e-Mohammed, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and is widely suspected to be behind the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The men, who range in age from 19 to 25, went overseas without telling their families, who grew concerned after a family member called one of them on his cellphone and "the conversation ended abruptly," said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The council got the family members in touch with the FBI last week, and the families played the 11-minute English video for agents and Muslim leaders at a lawyer's office.
"I was very disturbed by the contents. . . . It made references to the ongoing conflicts in the world and that a Muslim has to do something about them," said Awad, who described the video as a "farewell" and said it showed "a profound misunderstanding and potential misuse of Koranic verses."
Law enforcement sources said they are investigating the case with extensive help from the men's families, who have turned over the men's writings and computer files.
"Of course we're concerned, but we don't have any reason to believe there was some big plot or some big plan," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. "We're trying to find out who were these kids, what were they doing and why were they doing it. Our primary focus is, let's get them back safely."
Some of the five were born in the United States, and all are U.S. citizens, local Muslim leaders said.
FBI agents have been interviewing friends and classmates of the men in the Washington area, and Supervisory Special Agent Katherine Schweit, spokeswoman for the bureau's Washington field office, said the FBI is working with the families and Pakistani authorities "to investigate the missing students" and "to determine their identities and the nature of their business" in Pakistan.
The identities of the five men were made public by Pakistani media, but the FBI would not confirm their names last night.
Reached at her home in Alexandria, a woman who identified herself as the mother of one of the men declined to comment in detail.
"Please pray for us and have some sympathy for us," she said.
The Americans were picked up in a raid on a house in the eastern province of Punjab. They are being questioned at a police station near Lahore in what the Pakistani Embassy official described as a two- to three-day "preliminary investigation" to decide whether the men have terrorist ties and whether charges should be filed.
"We want to know when they traveled to Pakistan and what their purpose was," said the official, who declined to be identified because the investigation is ongoing. "This home belongs to a radical group, a banned group."
Jaish-e-Mohammed has been banned by the Pakistani government since 2002, a year after the group was implicated in the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. The Bush administration put it on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations in 2002.
Muslim leaders said at a news conference Wednesday that they would launch an education campaign to address what they acknowledged is a problem with extremist views in a small segment of their community.
"We, as a community, recognize that we have a problem," said Awad, who added that he hoped the case would not be "cited by the cottage industry of Muslim bashers."
Staff writers Megan Greenwell, James Hohmann, Spencer S. Hsu, Carrie Johnson and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington and Griff Witte in Pakistan and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.