Five young men from the Washington, D.C., area are reported to have been detained by authorities in Pakistan's Punjab region in connection with an investigation into possible terrorism. Information about the arrests has been reported by Sami Yousafzai, a NEWSWEEK correspondent in the region, and by at least one Pakistani media outlet. A U.S. government official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, confirmed that U.S. federal agencies are aware of the case and had already been investigating the individuals in question.
According to the Pakistani news report, five foreigners—described as one U.S.-born Pakistani, two Yemenis, one Egyptian, and one Swede—were arrested by a Pakistani anti-organized-crime squad during a raid in the town of Sargodha at the residence of an activist involved in Jaish-e-Muhammad, an Islamic extremist group alleged to have links to Al Qaeda that has been banned by Pakistani authorities. Jaish is also listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism, an American group that monitors Islamic extremism, reports that the five men were last seen in the U.S. on Nov. 29 and that there is concern that they "may have been sent abroad to train for jihad." The project says that one of the men, Ramy Zamzam, is a dental student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The project also identifies Zamzam as the president of the D.C. council of the Muslim Students Association (MSA).
The Investigative Project provided NEWSWEEK with an e-mail sent via Facebook from the Howard University MSA chapter to its members, headlined "Missing people since Sunday November 29 2009." The message says: "It has come to our attention that 5 young men have been reported missing since Sunday Nov 29," and then lists five names, including that of Zamzam. The e-mail continues: "They were supposedly heading toward Baltimore. No Furthur [sic] details are known about their plans. If anyone has ANY INFORMATION pertaining to their whereabouts or plans PLEASE RESPOND INFORM THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY and help put an end to the suffering of their families for the past WEEK!"
The Investigative Project reports that at least one of the men left behind some kind of "farewell video." Two people familiar with the investigation to date indicate that although the Pakistani news report said only one of the detained men was American, in fact they were all either American residents or citizens. One of the sources says there is now discussion between Pakistani and U.S. authorities as to whether the men should be sent quickly back to the U.S. or initially dealt with by Pakistan's legal system.
According to one of the sources, the family of at least one of the detained men attends the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, located in a Virginia suburb of Washington; the mosque was also once attended by Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter. Before 9/11, one of the mosque's preachers, Anwar al-Awlaki, was in contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers. U.S. authorities are now investigating contacts between al-Awlaki, who later fled the U.S. for Yemen, and Hasan.
NEWSWEEK correspondent Yousafzai reports that police said all the arrested men were being held on terrorism charges. Taliban sources told Yousafzai that more than one of of the suspects originally spent time in Al Qaeda's camps but quit the Afghan-Pakistan border area after Pakistan's Army began its recent offensive against the Taliban.
The Investigative Project notes that the report of the arrests in Punjab has occurred as concern is increasing among U.S. officials about homegrown Islamic extremism and self-radicalization among American Muslims like Nidal Hasan. The project also notes some similarities between the case of 20 or more young Somali-Americans who have disappeared from the Minneapolis area over the last year, having allegedly gone to Somalia for training with Al-Shabab, a terror group also affiliated with Al Qaeda.