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Pakistan looks at militant as key to Americans' journey
Investigators believe someone known as Saifullah recruited the five Americans through an exchange of e-mails. He then tried to arrange for them to head to the border with Afghanistan.
Mustafa Abu Maryam, center, a youth pastor, listens as Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society speaks in Alexandria, Va., home to the five young American men arrested in Pakistan.
By Alex Rodriguez and Sebastian Rotella
December 13, 2009
Reporting from Sargodha, Pakistan, and Washington - The investigation of five American Muslims held on suspicion of having links with terrorist groups has focused on a Pakistani militant whom the young men communicated with over the Internet and who became their primary contact as they tried to make their way to Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities said Saturday.
As Pakistani law enforcement officials began questioning for the fourth day the close-knit group from a multiethnic, working-class enclave in Virginia, investigators sought more information about a suspected Pakistani militant they knew only as Saifullah.
Investigators believe that Saifullah recruited the Americans, some of whom were college students, through an exchange of e-mails in late summer and the fall. Saifullah then tried to arrange for them to head to Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border, sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Although investigators have not determined which militant group Saifullah was affiliated with, they believe he was based in Hangu, a district in North-West Frontier Province adjacent to the tribal areas where the Taliban presence is strong.
"They wanted to go to the tribal areas, and [Saifullah] was guiding them through e-mails and cellphone conversations," said Javed Islam, a police official in Sargodha, the central Pakistani city where the Americans were detained. "We've checked his location, and he's from Hangu."
The account police provided Saturday began to answer questions about how the group might have been radicalized. The story reinforces impressions that the journey was not well planned and shows, experts said, that the path to jihad, or holy war, is not straight or easy.
Unlike several alleged U.S. Islamic militants accused this year of training and plotting with Al Qaeda, the five men from Alexandria, Va., do not appear to have influential contacts in the extremist networks in Pakistan. Their difficulties are reminiscent of recent cases in which extremists were wary of Westerners, fearing infiltration by informants or rebuffing green recruits.
"I think these groups have thought about some of the recent high-profile cases in the media and they are thinking: 'Are these guys spies?' " said Evan Kohlmann, an independent investigator who works closely with security forces around the world. "Or are they so inept they could be a liability?"
The five men range in age from 18 to 24 and are U.S. citizens of Pakistani, African and Egyptian descent. They lived within blocks of one another in the Washington suburb.
They were arrested Wednesday in Sargodha, a city in Punjab province regarded as a hotbed for militants who have strengthened ties with the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Police say the Americans flew to Pakistan in late November with the hope of waging jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But the five have not been charged.
On Saturday, they were transferred from Sargodha to the eastern city of Lahore and were questioned by a team of Pakistani police investigators and intelligence agents, said Islam, the police official. A team of FBI agents had also questioned the men in Sargodha.
The detainees told interrogators that YouTube video postings by Saifullah depicting militant attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan caught their attention, according to Pakistani police. The Americans attached comments to the postings praising the attacks, and eventually learned that the videos were posted by someone named Saifullah.
Saifullah is a common name meaning "sword of Allah." Several militant chieftains in Pakistan are named Saifullah, but experts said it was doubtful that any of them would have communicated extensively with unknown Americans.
"It might be a recruiter with jihad experience, but not necessarily high in the hierarchy," Kohlmann said. "It could be an entrepreneurial 19-year-old."
The five men arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 30, stayed one night and traveled to the nearby city of Hyderabad, where they appeared at a madrasa, or Islamic seminary, run by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistani militant group with ties to Al Qaeda. The men asked to join the group, but were rejected, said Sargodha Police Chief Usman Anwar.
The Americans then went to Lahore, where they approached Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an extremist group affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant organization accused of engineering the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people. Again, the men were rebuffed, police said.
These extremist groups disseminate a lot of English-language propaganda and operate offices in populated areas, so they have been gateways to training camps, combat and even Al Qaeda plots for Westerners over the years, authorities said. The rejections of the five young Americans underscore the apparently makeshift nature of an odyssey that relied mainly on the e-mail contact and the fact that one American had a family home in Sargodha, said a U.S. counter-terrorism specialist, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
"It seems . . . they just jumped into the ocean to see what they could find," the specialist said.
The five eventually went to Sargodha, where they stayed at a home owned by the parents of one of the men, Umar Farooq. His parents, Khalid and Sabira Farooq, live in Virginia but were at their home in Sargodha when the men arrived.
Islam said Farooq's parents did not know about the group's intentions and learned that they had left the U.S. only after another son there called to alert them.
Khalid Farooq does not share his son's radical beliefs and was angered by Umar's actions, said Islam, the Sargodha police official.
Khalid Farooq, 55, was arrested with the five young men and remained in custody while authorities decided whether to charge him for not informing police that the men were staying with him.
LAHORE, Pakistan — A Pakistani court on Monday issued an order preventing the immediate deportation of five young Americans arrested for trying to link up with Islamist militant groups in the country, a lawyer said.
The men were detained last week on suspicion of trying to contact Al-Qaeda-linked organisations and engage in militant activities, possibly in the lawless northwest tribal belt where the Taliban insurgency is fiercest.
"The Lahore High Court has directed federal and provincial governments to not hand over the US nationals who were arrested last week from Sargodha on allegations of a terror plot," said Tariq Asad, a Supreme Court lawyer.
Asad submitted the petition on behalf of a human rights group, appealing against the deportation of the men on the grounds that an fair investigation must be carried out and the rights of the suspects be protected.
Khalid Khawaja of the Defence of Human Rights Pakistan (DHRP), said that the men must be tried under Pakistani law if any evidence of crimes surfaced, rather then being handed over to US custody.
"If there is no accusation or no grounds for detention, the (government) must be directed to release them forthwith," he said.
Prominent activist Khawaja is known for his campaigns on behalf of people who allegedly disappeared after being detained by intelligence agencies in the fight against militancy in Pakistan.
A report on the detention of the five and possible charges must be supplied to the high court by December 17, Asad said, before any further decisions are made on their possible deportation to the United States or into FBI custody.
Pervez Rasheed, a spokesman of the government of Punjab, where the men are being held, said they would abide by the court order.
"We will obey the orders of the high court. We did not receive any request for the deportation of these arrested Americans, either by the federal government of Pakistan or from the United States," he told AFP.
Both the FBI and Pakistani security agencies have questioned the men, who were picked up in Sargodha in eastern Punjab province, although no formal request for their extradition or deportation has been reported.
The five men have been moved to the eastern city of Lahore where police are investigating their activities.
Police officials have said the five -- who are US citizens with dual nationality including two Pakistani-Americans -- used YouTube and other websites to try and contact extremist groups.
An official close to the investigation told AFP Saturday that the men, who left the United States last month, had contacted a man with links to Al-Qaeda and sought to go to the tribal region of Waziristan for training with extremist groups.
The arrests have raised fears that Muslim radicalisation is gaining momentum in the United States, creating high-value recruits for Islamist groups.
A local imam, Mahdi Bray, in the state of Virginia where the men had been living, said their arrest was a "wake up call" about radicalisation and railed against websites extolling extremism.
Leaders of the mosque attended by the five youngsters described them as normal, career-focused kids.
US President Barack Obama has vowed an investigation into the circumstances of the youths' travel to Pakistan and arrest.
KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistani police Monday seized luggage and a cell phone from a hotel where three of five Americans arrested on suspicion of militant links stayed, while a court ruled the men cannot be deported until judges review the case.
Police allege the young Americans intended to join militants in the northwest tribal areas and then travel to Afghanistan before their arrest last week. The case has fanned fears that Americans and other Westerners are heading to Pakistan to link up with al-Qaida and other militant groups.
Police searched the mid-range Saddam Hotel in the southern city of Karachi, the country's commercial hub, where some of the men stayed on Nov. 30 after their arrival in the country. They found five travel bags containing clothes, a cell phone and a book, police official Abdullah Sheikh said.
Hotel manager Mohammed Farooq Khan said the three left the hotel without informing management after staying one night.
The book was "The Pact," the best-selling true story of three young men from broken homes who pledged to support each other as they pursue academic dreams.
The detainees are accused of using Facebook and YouTube Web sites to try and connect with extremist groups in Pakistan and are said to have established contact with a Taliban recruiter. They have not been charged with any crime.
The court order Monday was aimed at preventing any deportation of the Americans before the judiciary gets a chance to review the case, Lahore High Court registrar Tahir Pervez said. No deportation order is known to have been issued so far, but officials in both countries have said such a move is likely.
The court issued the order in response to a petition from Khalid Khawaja, a civil rights activist who has often filed court cases on behalf of alleged militants and people believed to have disappeared at the hands of Pakistan's security apparatus.
Pervez said the court ordered the government of Punjab province to file a report on the case in a hearing Thursday.
The men, who are from the Washington, D.C. area, were picked up by Pakistani authorities last week in the Punjab town of Sargodha after their worried families in the U.S. turned to the FBI to track them down. They were shifted over the weekend to Lahore, the provincial capital, for further questioning.
FBI agents, who have been granted some access to the men, are trying to see if there is enough evidence to charge any of them with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group, an American official and another person familiar with the case said Friday.
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QUOTE ("Calcutta Telegraph")
Hunt for Web terror recruiter GRIFF WITTE, JERRY MARKON AND SHAIQ HUSSAIN
Dec. 13 2009: Pakistani authorities are searching for an insurgent figure believed to have aided five Northern Virginia men who allegedly tried to join al Qaida, saying the case could help unravel a growing network of terrorist recruiters who scour the Internet for radicalised young men.
Investigators have identified the man, known as Saifullah, as a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban and said he contacted one of the American men on YouTube, exchanged coded e-mails with the group, invited them to Pakistan and guided them once they arrived.
Experts said the case is especially troublesome because it apparently involved recruiting on YouTube, a Web site with mass appeal that is extremely difficult to monitor.
Pakistani officials have said that Saifullah first contacted one of the men, Ahmad A. Minni, on YouTube in August after Minni repeatedly praised YouTube videos showing attacks on US forces.
A Pakistani police official involved in the investigation said Saifullah and the men exchanged coded e-mails for months thereafter.
Pakistani investigators say they believe that Saifullah spent time in the US, because of his familiarity with American slang and geography. Officials said he was already wanted for his alleged role in an attack this year on the Sri Lankan cricket team as it visited Lahore for a tournament.
But the American men, all Muslims from the Alexandria area, failed to reach the remote tribal zone that is al Qaida’s home because the terrorist network’s commanders thought they were sent by the CIA to infiltrate al Qaida — and Saifullah could not convince them otherwise, a Pakistani intelligence official said on Saturday.
“They were regarded as a sting operation. That’s why they were rejected,” said the official.
The developments point to the dangers posed by an extensive and sophisticated network of online terrorist recruiters, but also its limitations. Investigators and terrorism experts say recruitment worldwide has become far more Web-based, with recruiters playing a critical role in identifying potential radicals and determining whether they can be trusted.
Yet Saifullah’s endorsement, secured through months of online contact with the five men, apparently did not carry much weight with Osama bin Laden’s organisation: it wanted someone who knew them better.
As a result, the five men wound up marooned in the eastern city of Sargodha, far from the terrorist haven in the forbidding mountains of northwest Pakistan that they were apparently trying to reach. Pakistani officials said the men were undeterred and kept trying to acquire the endorsements to gain access to al Qaida training camps — with the ultimate goal of fighting US troops in Afghanistan — when they were arrested.
The men, aged 18 to 24, travelled overseas without telling their families, triggering an international manhunt after concerned relatives contacted the FBI.
The five — Ramy Zamzam, 22; Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 — were transferred on Saturday from Sargodha to Lahore, where they were questioned by the FBI. LATWP NEWS SERVICE
Nature of Evidence Could Complicate Prosecution of 5 Americans in Pakistan
Published: December 14, 2009
WASHINGTON — Veteran terrorism prosecutors said Monday that if, as Pakistani officials have alleged, five Americans sought training from terrorist groups with the goal of fighting the United States, they almost certainly face aggressive prosecution at home.
Luggage recovered from three of the five American Muslims arrested last week was held Monday at a police station in Karachi.
Ahmed Abdullah Minni
But the prosecutors said that trying the men would require clear evidence of their intentions and could be complicated by several factors seen in similar cases in recent years, including the availability of Pakistani witnesses and how any evidence was obtained from the men when they were arrested in Pakistan.
“When prosecutors hear that Americans are traveling overseas to receive terrorist training, they don’t see merely a group of young people on a lark,” said Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former national security prosecutor and homeland security adviser in the Bush administration. “They see a serious crime that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
A Pakistani court on Monday temporarily barred the deportation of the five men, American citizens ranging in age from 18 to 24 who vanished in late November from their homes in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. The High Court in Lahore, where the men are being held for questioning, said they could not be sent back to the United States until the court had a chance to review the case.
Pakistani officials have said that after arriving in Karachi on Dec. 1, the men traveled to Hyderabad to visit an Islamic school associated with Jaish-e-Muhammad, a banned militant group, saying they wanted to train to fight American troops in Afghanistan. Rebuffed there, the officials said, the Americans went to Lahore and approached another group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which intelligence officials consider a front for the radical group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Turned away again, reportedly because they did not speak Urdu and the militants suspected an infiltration attempt, the men went to a home of relatives of one of them in the city of Sargodha, where the Pakistani police arrested them.
The five men have not been charged with a crime in either country, and some of their friends have expressed shock at the allegations, saying the men had never expressed militant views. Pakistani security officers and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have questioned them about their intentions and confiscated their laptop computers, external hard drives, cellphones and an iPod.
“These people allegedly took the affirmative step to go all the way to Pakistan, apparently with the goal of fighting against the United States,” said J. Patrick Rowan, who oversaw dozens of terrorism prosecutions and served until January as chief of the Justice Department’s national security division.
“It’s a mind-set that would pose a significant threat if they are back in the United States,” he said. “Any charge the Justice Department could reasonably bring, I think the department would bring.”
Mr. Rowan and other former prosecutors said the most relevant statute is probably the prohibition on knowingly providing “material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist group, a formal designation by the State Department that includes both Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Under the law, providing “personnel,” including one’s own services, qualifies as material support.
The statute carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison unless someone has died as a result of the terrorist activity, in which case the maximum penalty is life in prison.
David H. Laufman, a former federal prosecutor who worked on several major Virginia terrorism cases, noted that the material support law includes a conspiracy provision, which could apply if the five men worked together to offer their services to a terrorist group, even if they never joined it.
“The problems in a case like this has largely to do with the evidence,” said Mr. Laufman, who led the prosecution of Omar Abu Ali, a Virginia man convicted in 2005 of providing material support to Al Qaeda and plotting to kill President George W. Bush.
Mr. Laufman said questions could arise about the men’s treatment after their arrest in Pakistan and any statements made to Pakistani investigators, as well as the timing of any Miranda warning given to them by F.B.I. agents.
In Mr. Abu Ali’s case, some evidence came from security officials in Saudi Arabia, whose testimony was recorded and presented on videotape. Mr. Abu Ali’s lawyers said that he had given statements only under torture, while in Saudi custody.
Mr. Laufman said it was possible that prosecutors would ultimately offer a plea bargain to one of the five men in return for testimony about what the group discussed.
“It’s very helpful at trial to have somebody testify who was inside a conspiracy,” he said.
In at least three cases this year, Americans suspected of traveling overseas to seek training from extremists, but not of committing violent acts, have been charged with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group.
The case of the five Virginia men has attracted broad attention in part because of a marked increase this year in terrorism investigations focusing on American citizens or longtime residents.
A new report from the American Security Project, a Washington research institute, concludes that the number of Islamist terrorist attacks carried out worldwide has increased this year despite evidence of a decline in the fortunes of Al Qaeda.
The report finds that Al Qaeda may be undergoing “a profound funding crisis” and that Islamist groups in several countries are focusing increasingly on local issues rather than joining in the global struggle it advocates.
Detained American Muslims, center, are escorted by Pakistan police officers after appearing in anti-terrorist court in Sargodha, 4 Jan 2010
"We are not terrorists...We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism," one suspect said.
The five young American men arrested on suspicion of terrorism in Pakistan last month say they were actually planning to travel to Afghanistan to help fellow Muslims.
Appearing in court on Monday, the men denied charges they made contact with al-Qaida or other militant groups and that they were planning attacks in Pakistan. Some said they wanted to provide medical supplies and financial aid to Afghans.
However, the Associated Press reports that as the men entered the courthouse in the eastern city of Sargodha, one of them said, "We are not terrorists...We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."
The court ordered the men to be held another two weeks so police can have time to prepare their case. Police have alleged the men were trying to make contact with banned militant groups to launch a terrorist attack inside Pakistan.
Pakistani police have said they plan to ask the court to press terrorism charges, carrying life sentences.
The Americans, all from the Washington, DC area, were arrested at the home of a leader of the banned militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of the Prophet Muhammad) near Sargodha in early December. The group has ties to al-Qaida.
Police say the men used Internet sites to try to contact militants in Pakistan before traveling there from the U.S. in late November.
A U.S. civil rights group representing Muslims, the Council on American Islamic Relations, said the men made a "farewell video" with the message that Muslims must be defended.
Detained Americans complain of torture in Pakistan
By Faisal Mahmood Reuters Monday, January 18, 2010; 4:41 AM
SARGODHA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Five Americans held in Pakistan on suspicion of using the Internet to contact Islamist militants said on Monday they had been tortured as police asked a court to indict them on terrorism charges.
The students, in their 20s and from the U.S. state of Virginia, were detained last month. Police produced them before an anti-terrorism court on Monday after completing their interrogation.
"We are being tortured," several of the men shouted at reporters from inside a prison bus as they were being taken away after the hearing.
A police officer involved in the case, Amir Abbas Shirazi, dismissed the accusation.
"One of them just complained to the court about a stomach problem and said he needed some medicine," Abbas told reporters.
The five Americans, one of them wrapped in a shawl and another wearing a woolen cap, were brought to the court in handcuffs. Police did not allow reporters into the hearing.
They face lengthy prison terms if found guilty.
Shirazi said police had submitted their interrogation report, including a chargesheet and evidence, and asked the court to indict the suspects under anti-terrorism laws and for violating the penal code.
"These clauses relate to involvement in activities of terrorism and subversion in Pakistan or any of its allies," Shirazi said.
The men were arrested in the central city of Sargodha, home to one of Pakistan's biggest air bases, 190 km (120 miles) southeast of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, not long after arriving in Pakistan.
Two of them are of Pakistani ancestry, one of Egyptian, one of Yemeni and one of Eritrean.
Police officials said emails showed the suspects had contacted the Taliban, and that the militant group had planned to use them for attacks in Pakistan.
Police also had told court the five men had been in contact with an al Qaeda operative identified as just Saifullah.
The suspects told the court in their last hearing on January 4 that they had no plans to carry out attacks in Pakistan and they had only wanted to give fellow Muslims in Afghanistan financial and medical aid.
They also denied that they had contacts with al Qaeda or any other militant group, according to their lawyer.
A police investigation report showed pictures of a clip of a suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in Kabul posted on the YouTube Web site.
Police said one of the suspects, Ahmed Abdullah Minni, regularly visited the site and used to praise such videos. Shortly after Minni became a registered YouTube user, he was contacted by Saifullah, police said in the report.