By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009; A17
KABUL -- The arrest in Pakistan of five Americans who authorities say may have been on their way to terrorist training camps highlights the growing internationalism of Pakistani militant groups -- both in their aims and their appeal.
The men, who had not been charged as of Thursday night but were being questioned by the FBI, have been connected by Pakistani police to at least two armed Pakistani groups, Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Both groups have traditionally had local aims but in recent years have increasingly been linked to al-Qaeda, an organization with global reach and aspirations.
Indeed, police officials suggested that the five Americans arrested Tuesday may have been headed to North Waziristan, the rugged tribal land that has become al-Qaeda's home base. The region is used as a training ground for fighters and as a staging area for attacks against U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani police officials said the men made clear that they intended to wage jihad, or holy war. U.S. government officials have said that they had no information about the men's intentions or evidence that they had been trained at terrorist camps or were involved in terrorism plots.
For decades, Pakistan has had a long roster of militant groups, each with its own goals, tactics and memberships. Groups such as Jaish-i-Muhammad, for instance, once focused almost exclusively on attacking Indian targets in and around the disputed region of Kashmir, often with covert support from the Pakistani government. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, meanwhile, has targeted Shiites as part of a campaign of sectarian violence.
But Pakistani analysts say the organizations have recently begun to show an unprecedented level of cooperation and appear to be working toward a common agenda that involves attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan and government targets in Pakistan.
Toward this end, the groups have aligned with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They have also broadened the battlefield to encompass not just Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal belt, but also the heartland of Pakistan.
Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, has been hit repeatedly this year by suicide bombings blamed on a nexus of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and local militant groups.
Pakistani security analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said it was significant that the five Americans were arrested in Sargodha, a town on the eastern Punjabi plain, far from the tribal belt of the northwest.
"The tribal areas have become a very difficult place for people from outside to access because of the military operation," said Rizvi, referring to an offensive in South Waziristan launched by the Pakistani military this fall. "Militant activity in the tribal areas has been curtailed somewhat. But in the small cities in Punjab, life is quiet and you can easily move around."
The tribal areas, however, remain the hub of militancy in Pakistan, and they draw recruits from all over. Although the majority of fighters in those areas are Pakistani or Afghan, the region has also become a haven for Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and other young men from around the globe who have been influenced by radical Islamist ideology and are seeking a battlefield on which to fight. Until now, there have been few cases of Americans attempting to join in.
But Pakistani analysts said the case of the five Americans, coupled with that of a Chicago man charged this week with helping to plot last year's rampage in Mumbai, suggests that radical groups in Pakistan are finding an audience in the United States.
"It shows that this is truly a global phenomenon," said Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst and former Pakistani general.
For Pakistan-based groups, attracting Americans to their cause probably holds special appeal, Masood said.
"It allows them to say, 'Look, our sense of duty and motivation is so high that people come all the way from the U.S. to fight with us,' " he said.
Analysts said the discovery of the five Americans could further increase pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militant groups. The Obama administration has said that greater cooperation from Pakistan will be critical as the United States sends 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan next year to try to roll back the insurgency there.
Pakistan's commitment to fighting militant groups has been questioned repeatedly by U.S. officials, who say that elements of the nation's military and intelligence services continue to back radical organizations with which they have a history of cooperation.
But Rizvi said the arrests in Sargodha suggest that Pakistani law enforcement has stepped up its anti-militancy efforts, even against groups such as Jaish-i-Muhammad that once enjoyed state support.
Even groups formerly tied to Pakistan's intelligence service are being monitored "very closely," he said.