- The Washington Times - Monday, January 4, 2010

UPDATED:

SARGODHA, Pakistan — Five Americans detained in Pakistan told a court Monday they intended to cross the border to Afghanistan to wage jihad against Western forces, denying any links to al Qaeda or plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

The admission could be a prelude to possible U.S. conspiracy charges but also could draw sympathy among an increasingly anti-American Pakistani public. Such feelings have complicated U.S. efforts to get Pakistan to do more to crack down on militants staging cross-border attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan.

“We are not terrorists,” one of the five men, Ramy Zamzam, told the Associated Press as he entered the courtroom in the eastern Pakistani city of Sargodha, where they were arrested in December.

“We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism,” said Mr. Zamzam, a 22 year-old Egyptian-American who was a dental student at Howard University in Washington.

Jihad has several different meanings in Islam, but Mr. Zamzam seemed to be referring to the duty to fight against foreign forces viewed as occupying a Muslim country.

The arrest of the five young men from Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs sparked fears that Westerners are traveling to Pakistan to join militant groups. But Mr. Zamzam and another member of the group, Ethiopian-American Ahmed Minni, insisted the men had no links with al Qaeda and were focused only on Afghanistan, according to court documents.

“They said that they only intended to travel to Afghanistan to help their Muslim brothers who are in trouble, who are bleeding and who are being victimized by Western forces,” said the group’s lawyer, Ameer Abdullah Rokhri.

It was the first time the men, ages 19 to 25, addressed a court since they were arrested. Pakistani police have not filed formal charges but have said they plan to seek life sentences against the men under the country’s anti-terrorism law.

The court on Monday remanded the men to prison for 14 days to give police time to prepare their case.

“We have told the court that police have completed their investigation and have enough evidence against the five suspects to try them under anti-terrorism law,” said police Officer Matiullah Shahani.

Police have not said what the group’s intended target was, but authorities say the men had a map of Chashma Barrage, a complex located near nuclear power facilities that includes a water reservoir and other structures. It lies in the populous province of Punjab, about 125 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan has a nuclear weapons arsenal as well as nuclear power plants for civilian purposes.

FBI agents have questioned some of men and are working to see whether there is enough evidence to charge any of them with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, officials have said. The other possible charge — and one that could be more difficult to bring — would be conspiracy to maim or kill people overseas.

Besides Mr. Zamzam and Mr. Minni, the other members of the group include Pakistani-Americans Umer Farooq and Waqar Hussain and Egyptian-American Aman Yamar. Mr. Farooq’s father, Khalid, was also detained, but the court ordered him released Monday because of a lack of evidence that he had committed any crime, said police Officer Amir Shirazi.

The men are accused of using the social networking site Facebook and the Internet video site YouTube to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan. Police have said the Taliban recruiter they contacted may have planned to take the men to Mianwali, a district near Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, a region where al Qaeda and the Taliban have proliferated.

“if you are stoppd and questnd by govt on ur way 2 miawali say that u r going 2 chesma atomic power plant visiting ur uncle who is a technical engineer,” said an e-mail from the Yahoo account that police said the men used to communicate with one another.

“you should be wearing paki garments bright color 2 blend in,” said the e-mail, which was provided to the AP by police investigators Monday.

The men are alleged to have met representatives from the al-Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group in the southeastern city of Hyderabad and from a related group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore, but were said to have been turned away because they were not trusted.

Their attorney, Mr. Rokhri, denied those allegations Monday, saying they didn’t “have any link with al Qaeda or any banned organization like Jaish-e-Mohammed.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined comment on the possibility that the presence of U.S. forces across the border was the magnet that drew the men.

The U.S. Embassy also has declined to comment on the potential charges the men face in Pakistan.

Officials in both countries have said they expect the men eventually to be deported to the United States, though charging them in Pakistan could delay that process. A Pakistani court ruled last month the men cannot be deported until judges review the case.

Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said anti-American sentiment could complicate efforts to deport the five men, especially now that Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government after nine years of military rule.

“When you have a nondemocratic setup, issues which involve international cooperation are relatively simpler to handle,” Mr. Ahmad said. “If Pakistan delays any cooperation in instantly handing over these suspects to the United States, as was the history before, it’s because we are in a qualitatively different political environment.”

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