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Americans’ Arrests in Pakistan a ‘Wake-Up Call’ for Virginia Muslims

April 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner has the story of five Americans awaiting trial in Pakistan on terrorism charges. The Muslim men from Virginia, arrested in January, have denied involvement with al-Qaida.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Americans on trial in Pakistan.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The arrest of five young Americans on terrorism charges last December at this house in Eastern Pakistan shocked the Muslim-American community in Northern Virginia.

MAHDI BRAY, Muslim American Society: This is indeed a wakeup call. It is a wakeup call involving our youth.

MARGARET WARNER: The five men, ages 18 to 24, had become friends at this mosque in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Worshipers there said they were good kids who studied hard and never expressed extremist views.

Mustafa Abu Maryam runs the mosque’s youth group.

MUSTAFA ABU MARYAM, youth coordinator, Islamic Circle of North America: Our group discussions never talked about politics, never talked about ongoing conflicts, never talked about fighting against anyone, indirectly or directly. On the contrary, we always promoted being compassionate toward others and good stewards of humanity.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in late November, the five, Ahmed Abdullah Minni, Umar Chaudhry, Waqar Khan, Aman Hassan Yemer, and Ramy Zamzam, disappeared, without telling family or friends of their plans.

Amal Khalifa, Ramy Zamzam’s mother, said he did tell her he was going away to Baltimore.

He disappeared, what, in late November?

AMAL KHALIFA, mother of terror suspect: I can’t say he disappeared. He told me before he leave he’s going somewhere. And he took two sets of clothes, a lot of jeans and shirts, two spare shampoos, so — everything. And he says, I’m going out, be out for a few days. I’m coming back.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you believe him?

AMAL KHALIFA: I thought he may be going farther than Baltimore, like Florida, New York, you know, like young men this age.

MARGARET WARNER: Zamzam had been a promising dental student. But, after the young men disappeared, a video was discovered featuring him speaking to the camera.

It prompted parents of the other youths to notify the FBI. The video is now in the hands of law enforcement, but officials have said it also showed scenes of war and declared, “Muslims must be defended.”

Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director, saw the video and said he found it troubling.

NIHAD AWAD, executive director, Council on American-Islamic Relations: I recall the video is about 11 minutes. And — and it’s like a farewell. And they didn’t specify what they will be doing. But just hearing and seeing videos similar on the Internet, it just made me uncomfortable.

MARGARET WARNER: Amal Khalifa didn’t see it until the parents’ meeting with the FBI.

Did you watch it?

AMAL KHALIFA: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you think?

AMAL KHALIFA: It’s normal, mild talk. This is not something to worry about or to even think about.

MARGARET WARNER: Pieced-together accounts suggest they traveled first to Karachi, Pakistan, moving on to three other cities, before ending up in the town of Sargodha, where Umar Chaudhry had family.

The young men told people they were there for a wedding. But, on December 8, they were arrested by Pakistani authorities. They’re now on trial for plotting terrorist attacks within Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S.

Prosecutors told reporters the young men made Internet contact with a militant tied to al-Qaida and the Taliban. They say evidence from the suspects’ computers and belongings includes maps of possible attack sites, phone records and e-mails. Prosecutors also say the men have confessed to the charges.

Zamzam’s mother, who recently visited her son in jail, insists Pakistani authorities have trumped up the charges.

AMAL KHALIFA: So far, though, the case is very weak, and the lawyer proved, so far, everything is being fabricated and is not true.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s more, she says, whatever confessions they did give were coerced by police.

AMAL KHALIFA: They beat the hell out of them over there, tortured them and keep them, he said, as — as much as a count of 36 hours with no food, water or sleep. And they beat the hell out of them. They wanted them to say they are terrorism and they came here for terrorism reason.

MARGARET WARNER: Pakistani embassy spokesman Nadeem Kiani denies the charge. “At no point did they complain of being tortured, and they didn’t show any physical signs of being tortured,” he said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley supported the Pakistanis’ account. “We have been meeting with them from the first days they were in custody,” he said, “and have not seen any evidence of mistreatment.”

A State Department observer is attending the trial, which held its first hearing March 31. But reporters can’t attend the closed-door proceeding, overseen by a judge, not a jury.

Tariq Asad is the Americans’ lawyer.

TARIQ ASAD, attorney for defendants: If you see, what is — what is the chance for winning the case, because there is nothing in the case, nothing in the case? They have done nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: Amal Khalifa is clinging to the hope that her son’s lawyer is right.

Do you think there’s any chance that, in fact, he did go there meaning to join up with militants, with insurgents?

AMAL KHALIFA: If you want me to swear on that, I will swear that he’s not.

MARGARET WARNER: No doubt at all in your mind?

AMAL KHALIFA: No, zero. Never crossed my mind.

MARGARET WARNER: But he has gotten himself in trouble.

AMAL KHALIFA: He don’t got himself in trouble. He got in trouble accidentally.

MARGARET WARNER: If the trouble leads to a conviction, Zamzam and his friends could face life in prison. Pakistani officials say, however, they will have the right to appeal.