Five young American Muslims have been arrested in Pakistan and are under investigation for possibly trying to meet up with a terror group implicated in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
Frantic relatives and worried FBI agents have been searching for the five college students from the Alexandria area, a Washington suburb, for more than a week since their disappearance in late November. FBI "is working with families and local law enforcement to investigate the missing students and is aware of the individuals' arrested in Pakistan," FBI spokesperson Katherine Schweit said in a statement on Wednesday.
Agents are also working with Pakistani authorities "to determine their identities and the nature of their business there, if indeed these are the students who had gone missing," she added. She said the investigation continues and declined to comment further.
The men "are under arrest in Pakistan," said SM Imran Gardezi, press minister at the Pakistani embassy in Washington. They were picked up from Sargodha in Punjab province in Pakistan on Tuesday.
"The reasons for their visit to Pakistan are being investigated," said Gardezi. "They are being investigated for alleged links to extremist groups." He did not give further details on the circumstances of their arrest, their names or where they were being held.
But the Washington Post citing Pakistani media reports said the men, who are in their early 20s, were taken into custody at the home of an activist linked to Jaish-i-Muhammad, a jihadist group implicated in the Indian parliament attack and branded a terrorist organisation by the US.
News of the five students arrest came as David Headley, a Chicago man with Pakistani roots, accused of scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, pleaded not guilty Wednesday at his first court appearance since his October arrest.
The national executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad, told a news conference that last week some relatives of the young men went to see him and expressed concern that the five "had been missing since the weekend under mysterious circumstances."
The families had discovered that the men had gone overseas but the "bits and pieces were not adding together," Awad said. His group helped the families contact the FBI, and CAIR believes that their tip had led to the arrests in Pakistan.
An eleven-minute video was left behind that appeared to be a "farewell" from the young men, Awad said. He watched the video and found its contents disturbing. It did not say what the men planned to do, but dealt with conflicts in the world and featured verses of the Koran, he said.
According to two unnamed US officials cited by CBS News the video said Muslims must be defended and showed images of US casualties.
Asked about the five, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined comment but reiterated the United States was concerned about the work of extremist groups in Pakistan, particularly in the border areas with Afghanistan. "We know we've got 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," she said.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the US embassy in Islamabad was also seeking information about the five.
"If they are American citizens, we of course are going to be very interested in the charges that they've been detained on and what sort of circumstances they're being held," said Kelly.