Five Muslim men missing from US reportedly arrested in Pakistan

CNN reports on a story that has broken over the past couple of days:

Five people arrested in Pakistan had been reported missing in the United States, and police are confident they were planning terrorist acts, a Pakistani police official told CNN. It is too soon to link the men with any terrorist organizations, said Tahir Gujjrar, deputy superintendent of police in Sargodha, Pakistan, but preliminary investigations suggest they had sought to link up with the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Jamaat ud Dawa militant organizations. Neither group showed interest, however, Gujjrar said. The five were from Virginia and their families had contacted the FBI soon after they went missing, he said. They include two Pakistani-Americans, two Yemeni-Americans and an Egyptian-American. The arrests came after a raid on a home in Sargodha, about 120 miles south of Islamabad, Gujjrar said. No U.S. officials have confirmed Gujjrar’s information, and there was no evidence charges had been filed. The FBI had said earlier that it was trying to determine whether a link existed between the five missing men and the arrests in Pakistan.

Authorities first learned that the five men were missing when their families came forward with this information. The men had told their parents they were going to attend a local conference, but the parents’ cell phones got what appeared to be overseas ring tones when they tried to call. The families then went to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and on the advice of CAIR officials informed the FBI what had occurred. The families, in my view, acted laudably in going to authorities.

I watched yesterday’s CAIR press conference on this incident; the statements in that conference comprise basically the entirety of the quotes from Muslim community leaders appearing in the CNN piece. The press conference was, reasonably enough, sparse on details due to both privacy considerations for the families and also the fact that there is an ongoing investigation. However, reading between the lines it actually provided a fair amount of information.

One very interesting detail, which had been divulged to CNN in advance of the press conference by CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper, was that one of the men had left behind an 11-minute video. At the press conference, the speakers would not classify it as a martyrdom video, but strongly implied that it was. CAIR’s Nihad Awad said the content of the video “disturbed” him, that it referenced “the ongoing conflict in the world, and that young Muslims have to do something.” It was clear from Awad’s remarks that the video had theological content, and he described it as “like a farewell.” Last night I spoke with a high-level source in US intelligence who has also watched the video. He explicitly characterized it as a martyrdom tape, and said that the individual who made it claimed to speak on behalf of the group.

It is unusual for would-be jihadists to make martyrdom tapes in advance of receiving training, and jihadi groups tend to discourage this practice for obvious reasons that are made clear by this case: the tape can be found before the men have received a mission of any kind. In this case, the fact that one man made a tape before going to Pakistan suggests that he may not have intended to return to the US. There is, according to my source, a lot of talk of Afghanistan in the video: perhaps he intended to fight coalition forces there. But if the men succeeded in liaising with jihadi groups and received training, there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t have been sent back to the US.

Were the five men who were reportedly arrested in Pakistan able to liaise with a terrorist organization? Tahir Gujjrar, the Sargodha police superintendent quoted in the above CNN piece, claims that they were not because neither Jaish-e-Mohammed nor Jamaat ud Dawa showed interest in them. Certainly there are other cases where Westerners with the intention of linking up with jihadists in Pakistan have been turned away. In the recent Tarek Mehanna case, his associate Ahmed Abousamra was unable to gain admission to training camps in Pakistan. The criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Heidi L. Williams in that case notes: “ABOUSAMRA made contact with terrorist groups, included Lashkar e Tayyiba (‘LeT’) and the Taliban. However, because ABOUSAMRA was an Arab (not Pakistani) the LeT camp would not accept him, and because of ABOUSAMRA’s lack of experience, the Taliban camp would not accept him.”

But the intelligence source with whom I spoke last night said that they had not in fact been turned away: they were arrested in a guest house where they were waiting to be placed in a new class of trainees. Since I don’t have access to the underlying information upon which these conclusions are drawn, I can’t definitively say whether the jihadist groups that these men allegedly reached out to did in fact intend to place them in camps. Rather, I want to note that Gujjrar’s preliminary assessment is not uncontested.

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