Thursday, December 10, 2009

Five Northern Virginia residents have been arrested in Pakistan after family members and the Muslim community contacted the FBI with suspicions that the men had gone overseas to perform acts of terrorism.

Pakistan Embassy spokesman Nadeem Kiani confirmed the arrest Monday of “five persons in Pakistan,” in Sargodha in Punjab province, though there were discrepancies between U.S. and Pakistani officials about the men’s names.

“All five of the men had U.S. passports and they were taken into custody by Pakistani police on Dec. 7,” Mr. Kiani told The Washington Times. “The police had information that there were foreigners in the house and became suspicious of their activity in the area.”

The five men are thought to be Ahmed Abdullah Waqar, Hassan Khan, Eman Hassan, Yasir Zamzam and Ramy Zamzam, a U.S. military intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Times.

He cautioned, though, that jihad groups use aliases and variations on the same name.

Mr. Kiani gave a different account, giving one name that U.S. officials and Pakistani media did not. The embassy spokesman said Omar Faroq, a Pakistani American, was taken into custody “along with four other men at the home of one of Faroq’s relatives.”

“He was his uncle,” Mr. Kiani said.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the five men raised concerns among their families when they left the country unannounced in November. After leaving, some of the men made calls back to the United States and the overseas ring raised additional suspicions.

The five all live in Northern Virginia and are acquaintances, but Mr. Hooper would not give additional information about the men to protect their families or compromise the ongoing investigation.

“The Muslim community took the lead in bringing the case to law enforcement authorities,” Mr. Hooper said.

Nihad Awad, CAIR’s national executive director, said at a Washington news conference that he had seen an 11-minute video left behind by one of the men, all reportedly 25 or younger. He said that in the video, the man “made references to the ongoing conflict in the world and that young Muslims have to do something.”

“The video’s about 11 minutes and it’s like a farewell. And they did not specify what they would be doing. But just hearing and seeing videos similar on the Internet, it just made me uncomfortable,” Mr. Awad said.

Johari Abdul-Malik, a local imam who is president of the Muslim Society of Washington, D.C., said family members saw nothing suspicious in their behavior.

“From all of our interviews, there was no sign they were outwardly radicalized,” Mr. Abdul-Malik said.

Mr. Kiani said Pakistani authorities are investigating the situation and will work closely with their U.S. counterparts “if there is a connection to current investigation being conducted in the U.S.”

A Yemeni-American and an Egyptian-American were among the five arrested, Mr. Kiani added.

The U.S. military intelligence official said Pakistan told the U.S. of the arrests Wednesday. He added that getting five American recruits would be a major coup for al Qaeda or any other Islamist jihad group.

“[CIA Director] Michael V. Hayden, [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike] Mullen and others have long said that al Qaeda was recruiting and training Westerners and people familiar with the West,” the military intelligence official said. “U.S. passports are especially prized.”

The enormous value of Americans to al Qaeda means that the group takes extra care with U.S. recruits. However, the military intelligence official explained, this also makes it difficult to determine at what stage of training the group may have been.

Mr. Hooper of CAIR said that while his group would not take credit for the arrests, “We initiated contact with the FBI to make them aware of this developing situation. What course it took from there was up to the FBI and the investigators on the ground.”

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, confirmed U.S. knowledge of the case but gave no details.

“The FBI is working with families and local law enforcement to investigate the missing students and is aware of the individuals arrested in Pakistan. We are working with Pakistan authorities to determine their identities and the nature of their business there, if indeed these are the students who had gone missing. Because this is an ongoing investigation, we will not be able to provide further details at this time,” he said.

One of the men arrested was Ramy Zamzam, a dental student attending Howard University. The school would confirm only, in a press release, that he was enrolled during the fall 2009 semester.

Samirah Ali, president of Howard University’s Muslim Student Association, told the Associated Press that the FBI contacted her last week about Mr. Zamzam and said he had been missing for a week. Attempts to reach Ms. Ali were not successful.

She told the AP that she has known Mr. Zamzam for three years and was surprised to learn he is suspected of involvement with Islamist radicalism.

“He’s a very nice guy, very cordial, very friendly,” Ms. Ali said. “It really caught me off guard.”

c Ben Conery and Victor Morton contributed to this report.

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