x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Missing' young Muslim Americans held in Pakistan

A video of one of the five missing men talking about young Muslims' duty of defending Islam stokes US concerns on home-based terrorism.

A man walks past the house in the Pakistani city of Sargodha where five American men were reportedly arrested.
A man walks past the house in the Pakistani city of Sargodha where five American men were reportedly arrested.

WASHINGTON // Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), received a strange call on December 1 from Muslim leaders in nearby northern Virginia. Five young men who prayed at a mosque there had mysteriously disappeared, they said. The parents of the young men did not know their whereabouts or motives for leaving. At a meeting later that day, the parents explained to Mr Awad that their sons' cell phones had been turned off. One of the families was able to get through, but the "the conversation ended abruptly", Mr Awad said. The only clue they left behind was an 11-minute videotaped message in which one of the young men quoted the Quran and spoke about defending Islam, according to Mr Awad, who saw the video and said it "disturbed" him. The video contained images of US soldiers fighting abroad, Mr Awad said, describing the tape as being "like a farewell". He "made references to the ongoing conflicts in the world, and that young Muslims have to do something", Mr Awad said. "It just made me uncomfortable." Mr Awad immediately put the parents in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, touching off a week-long saga that appears to have ended on Wednesday when the five young men, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were arrested in a raid in Pakistan's Punjab province at the home of a man believed to be linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group that has been banned in Pakistan since 2002. The group's members have been accused of the 2002 murder of a Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, and of carrying out a suicide attack that year in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers. Javed Islam, the regional police chief, told the Associated Press that the men wanted to join militants in Pakistan's tribal area before crossing into Afghanistan. Another law enforcement official, Usman Anwar, the local police chief in the eastern city of Sargodha, told the news agency that the five men were "directly connected" to the al Qae'da terrorist network. "They are proudly saying they are here for jihad," Mr Anwar said. The FBI in a statement confirmed that five men had been detained without incident and four of them had US passports. "An FBI Special Agent and two other US government officials from the embassy have spoken with some of the men - the FBI believes they are the missing individuals," the statement said. "Discussions concerning their possible return to the United States are still under way." Few details about the young men or their travels have been made public, though they are all believed to be US citizens, according to Muslim leaders in Virginia and Washington. Three of the men are of Pakistani descent, one is of Yemeni descent, and another man's family has roots in Egypt. The Pakistani press has identified the men as Umer Farooq, Ahmed Abdullah, Waqar Khan, Aman Yasir, and Ramy Zamzam. Mr Zamzam is a dental student at Howard University in Washington, DC and a former president of the Muslim Student Association's DC Council. Shown on his Facebook page in a button-down shirt, beard and close-cropped haircut, Mr Zamzam was described as a model for other students, making his disappearance all the more disturbing, local Muslim leaders said. Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, and a former chaplain at Howard, said: "He was very popular, very likeable, very balanced." The missing men "were doing all the things that we think the good kids should be doing". The disappearances of five seemingly normal young men touches a nerve in the United States where fears of home-grown terrorism, already high, have been stoked by a recent spate of incidents involving radicalised US citizens. A Chicago man, David Coleman Headley, was charged last week as a conspirator in the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last month, was believed to have been motivated by his opposition to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maj Hasan was known to have communicated with Anwar al Awlaki, a former imam in northern Virginia now living in Yemen, whose online sermons have inspired terrorism suspects in the US and Canada, according to investigators. The recent disappearances bear the most resemblance to similar incidents in Minnesota, where about 20 young Somali-American men left for Africa without telling their families, prompting an FBI investigation. Eight men - many of whom have fled the country - were charged last month with helping recruit the Minnesota men to al Shabab, a Somali terrorist group with ties to al Qa'eda. At least three of the recruits have been killed, including one man, Shirwa Ahmed, who officials say is the first known suicide bomber from the United States. In remarks yesterday following his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, Barack Obama, who was asked about the men from northern Virginia, stressed the "extraordinary contributions of the Muslim-American community". But he also expressed concerns about the radicalisation of young Muslims in America. "The Muslim American community is vast, so we have to constantly be mindful that some of these twisted ideologies are available over the internet and can affect our young people," he said. Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, told the America-Israel Friendship League in New York last week: "The fact is that home-based terrorism is here - like violent extremism abroad, it is now part of the threat picture that we must confront." The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton declined to comment when asked about the five missing men on Wednesday, though she said the United States plans to "work more closely with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to try to root out the infrastructure of terrorism that continues to recruit and train people". No one knows for sure what - or who - caused the young men to leave unexpectedly for Pakistan. Mr Abdul-Malik, the imam, suspects the young men were indoctrinated online. "The people that they associate with on the ground are quite balanced, moderate and engaged," he said. "There was no sign of anguish, anxiety or anger or even frustration," added Mr Awad of Cair. Mr Awad and other Muslim leaders here said they did not believe the young men were radicalised locally. They described mosques in the Washington DC-area as "moderate" and "mainstream". Muslim leaders moved quickly on Wednesday to distance the young men from the broader US Muslim community. They expressed fears that the incident would fuel anti-Islamic rhetoric here. "We acknowledge that there is a problem," Mr Awad said. "We are going to deal with it." sstanek@thenational.ae