By Jerry Markon, Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A06
Five Northern Virginia men arrested in Pakistan indicated Monday that they plan to fight terrorism charges that Pakistani police are recommending by using a strategy seen in U.S. courtrooms: that they were preparing for jihad but not planning any terror attacks.
The men told a Pakistani court that they had neither sought nor established contact with extremist groups and traveled to the region only "to help the helpless Muslims," according to their Pakistani attorney. As they entered the courtroom, one of the men, Ramy Zamzam, told reporters: "We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."
No charges were filed during the hearing in Sargodha, but Pakistani police said their formal recommendation that the men be charged under anti-terrorism laws -- and sentenced to life in prison -- would be filed by Tuesday. A judge would decide whether to prosecute the five Americans, who are due back in court Jan. 18.
The men, all from the Alexandria area, left the United States shortly after Thanksgiving without telling their parents, who alerted the FBI. They were arrested Dec. 8 at the family home of Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, the father of one of the men, Umar Chaudhry. The elder Chaudhry was released from custody Monday by the judge because of insufficient evidence against him, officials said.
Pakistani police say the men were in contact with a Taliban recruiter, were seeking to join al-Qaeda and went to Pakistan to carry out terrorist acts. The FBI is also investigating the men, and officials have said the Justice Department is likely to consider charges in the United States.
U.S. law enforcement officials have played down the possibility of charges in Pakistan. If both countries charge the men, the governments would probably try to work out which country will bring the case, officials said.
An attorney for the men's families, Nina Ginsberg, said statements by their Pakistani attorney "are consistent with the families' views that the five are not terrorists. None of the family members has ever had the slightest indication that any of them would engage in the type of conduct being reported by the Pakistani officials."
She said family members hope Pakistani authorities "conduct a full and fair review of the evidence" but that they are "alarmed by statements attributed to Pakistani officials appearing to prejudge their cases."
The emerging legal strategy reflects a view among some lawyers that prosecutors have misused the word jihad, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that it is a peaceful term that can mean studying Islam and caring for the sick.
"Jihad can take all types of forms, and it's a great disservice when government officials use jihad and terror interchangeably," said John K. Zwerling, whose client, Seifullah Chapman, was one of 11 Muslim men convicted after Sept. 11 in federal court in Alexandria of being part of a Virginia jihad network in the so-called paint-ballers case.
The term jihad dates to the Koran, and scholars have been debating its meaning for centuries. F. Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont, said viewing jihad as "an inner struggle to be a better Muslim" is part of "a very respectable and long tradition in Islam."
But in recent decades, Gause said, "jihad has had much more of a fighting element in the way it's used by Muslim political thinkers, including Osama bin Laden."
He said that the five men's actions "are kind of suspicious in this context. Pakistan is a strange place to go and do this other kind of more internal spiritual jihad. Why wouldn't they do it at home?"
Anil Kalhan, a Drexel University law school professor who has written on Pakistani law and politics, said it is unclear how broadly a court would interpret that country's anti-terrorism law, under which the Americans would be tried. "It depends less on the concept of jihad than on what the men were actually doing," he said.
Constable and Hussein reported from Pakistan.