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Americans Questioned in Pakistan Over Possible Militant Ties

December 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Five Americans who were reported missing last month from the Washington, D.C., area were detained in Pakistan amid questions over possible ties to extremist groups. Jeffrey Brown speaks with experts about their detention.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the story of a group of young Americans who may have been preparing to join terrorist groups.

The five Americans were arrested Wednesday at this house in Eastern Pakistan. A laptop computer and extremist literature were also seized.

USMAN ANWAR, Sargodha, Pakistan, district police chief: They were U.S. nationals. One was from Egypt. One was from Algeria. And one was from Ethiopia. But they had U.S. passports, valid passports, with valid Pakistani visas. And two of them were Pakistani-born Americans, and they were here for jihad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Police said the men told them they wanted to train with a militant group tied to al-Qaida, but were turned away. The arrests took place in the city of Sargodha, 125 miles south of the capital, Islamabad.

MAN (through translator): There were four foreign people in the house, and we thought they were from America. The owner of the house also lives outside of the country. He came here recently, and somebody called the police that foreigners were living here now.

JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. officials believe the five men, aged 19 to 25, are the same individuals reported missing by their families more than a week ago in the Washington, D.C. area. Yesterday, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the families contacted his organization and the FBI. They had found a farewell video from the young men with scenes of war and demands that Muslims be defended.

NIHAD AWAD, spokesperson, Council on American-Islamic Relations: I recall the video is about 11 minutes. 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Norway today, President Obama declined to comment on the arrests. Instead, he said, twisted ideologies could affect young people in the United States, especially via the Internet. And, back in Pakistan, police said they are still trying to learn more about the men and whether they had established any firm contacts with terror groups.

And I’m joined now in our studio by Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic relations. Also with us is Josh Meyer, who’s covering this story for The Los Angeles Times. Welcome to both of you.

JOSH MEYER, The Los Angeles Times: Thanks.

NIHAD AWAD: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about what concerned you when you saw the video and when the parents came to talk to you. Where there specific threats there? What did you see?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, two elements. The first concern is the disappearance of the young people to their families and to all of us. And the second part is the fact that a video was left behind raised the concerns more. And the content of the video that I watched also disturbed me, juxtaposing images of war and putting with them or next to them verses of the Koran that sometimes people misunderstand and misuse. That made me and the families worry. And that’s why they moved, you know, to let us know.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much have you come to know about this group of young men? How tight-knit were they? How did they come together?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, I personally do not know the families or the young people. But from my first impression when I met with the families — we asked them many questions — they seemed to be very typical families, middle of the rung, and they’re proud of their kids, mainstream, no sign of disturbance, anxiety or anger over things.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, they were completely surprised by it?

NIHAD AWAD: They were very completely surprised, and they pieced it together after the weekend was over. They stayed all night just trying to understand where they could be. But when they found the video and watched it, they made the conclusion that they have to turn over to the government and talk to us and get advice.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Josh Meyer, what have you learned so far about what happened next when the FBI got involved, and then when these young men went to Pakistan?

JOSH MEYER: Well, there’s sort of a before and after. They know what their plan — they know why they — where they went. They know they got off the airport out the plane in Karachi. They went to Lahore after that, and then onward from there. But I think, from there, the investigation is still unfolding. And there’s a lot that remains unknown about it, who they met with, what these people purported to be, whether they were connected to any Pakistani militant groups. So, there’s a lot of unknowns at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was reported that they were first rejected by a group that they tried to get in contact with.

JOSH MEYER: Right. There’s been a lot of conflicting information. That’s one of the things that they said. There’s also some reports out of Pakistan that they were at a safe house, or a house owned by a guy from Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is one of the many militant groups in Pakistan. So, at this point, the FBI and other officials are trying to figure out exactly what happened and what didn’t. And they say that they’re still trying to run this to ground as we speak.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and what’s known about how seriously they take these guys? I mean, as serious would-be terrorists, or as wannabes, in the jargon there? What…


JEFFREY BROWN: How are they being taken?

JOSH MEYER: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think any time somebody gets radicalized to the point where they want to leave their homes in the United States and go to Pakistan to hook up with these people, that’s of serious concern to the United States, especially because they can turn around and come back to the United States and launch attacks. But they might also be there to learn the ways of jihad. I think there was some speculation that they might have gone there to fight in Afghanistan, to Chechnya, Kashmir. I mean, any of those are an option, but it’s of great concern to the U.S. officials. And there have been other cases in recent months of people doing the same thing, some guy from Long Island, for instance.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there were also reports about that they were using Facebook, YouTube as ways, even from here, to get in touch with jihadi groups.

JOSH MEYER: Right. Right. That’s true. And I think that this is not the first case where there’s been reports of people from the United States going to Pakistan and trying to hook up with these groups and then being rejected. I think that these groups, especially the ones that are considered pipelines to al-Qaida, are very, very concerned right now that they’re — that these people might be spies for the CIA or informants for the FBI or just wannabes that have no place there. So, you know, there’s — they have their own operational security. And they have rejected Americans for not having the right references.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how — how worried are you and your community about the potential for more cases like this?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, first of all, we have to make sure that this is a small problem, it’s not widespread. But, to us, it is a serious problem. It is there. It is not widespread, doesn’t reflect on the Muslim community, or even young Muslims nationwide, because the overwhelming majority are integrated. They’re American citizens. They’re OK with their lives. But, also, we take it seriously that we have to prevent it from happening. The good thing is, I see this as a success story. The fact that the families came forward, trusted us, and we worked with them to report it to the FBI in the presence of lawyers shows like an equation there that needs to continue to be balanced, you know, going out, informing — I mean, giving the information to the government, intervening in the right time, and also acknowledging that this problem is there. We’re going to launch a major initiative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a way to intervene at an earlier point would be — I mean, that’s the obvious question — to reach these people earlier?

NIHAD AWAD: I think definitely. Looking at Minneapolis, Somali — young Somalis going to Somalia and other incidents, I think we have done a good job as a community and as a country, that we intercepted this at a good time. Maybe, in the future, we can prevent it even from happening by owning up to this problem, dealing with this issue, letting people talk about the issues, their frustration, and given the space, and go to the point of radicalization and try to rebuttal, whether theologically, spiritually, socially, and politically, make it difficult for them to think about these bad options.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and just in our last minute, you’re talking with law enforcement here. I mean, we had a colleague of yours on our show last night talking about the American implicated in the Mumbai attacks.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is another case where they clearly must be worried about the potential here.

JOSH MEYER: Absolutely. They’re very worried about this and they’re worried about the guys from Somalia. They’re worried that there’s two people from the New York area. They are very, very worried that these guys are — you know, why would they be moved to go to Pakistan for this, what kind of pipeline is there perhaps even in the United States that sends people there, and what they can do about stopping them, either, you know, before they leave or once they get there. But they don’t feel like they have a good handle on all of the Americans who are going back and forth to places like Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they considering this a success story, as he puts it, in this case?

JOSH MEYER: I don’t think so at this point. I mean, they’re very grateful to the families for helping, for instance, but I think that they’re glad that they caught this at the stage they have. But I wouldn’t call it a success story.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Josh Meyer, Nihad Awad, thank you both very much.