Five young American Muslims arrested in Pakistan met with representatives of an al-Qaida-linked group and asked for training but were turned down because they lacked references from trusted militants, a Pakistani law enforcement official said Thursday.
Another senior officer said the men wanted to fight jihad, or holy war, in northwestern Pakistan and against American troops in Afghanistan.
The young men apparently first tried to contact jihadist groups through Facebook and YouTube, then traveled to Pakistan to attempt personal meetings, a Pakistani diplomat in Washington said.
One of their fathers was also detained when police raided two locations this week in Sargodha, a city on the main road to the Afghan border region that is home to a major air force base and is known as a hotbed of militant activity.
The case is another worrisome sign that Americans may be susceptible to recruitment to terrorist networks from within the United States. It comes on the heels of charges against a Chicago man accused of plotting international terrorism.
U.S. officials in Pakistan have now visited the men in custody. Their disappearance from the Washington, D.C, area late last month — with one of them leaving behind a militaristic farewell video saying Muslims must be defended — prompted a frantic search by friends and family and an investigation by worried counterterrorism officials.
Javed Islam, a regional police chief in Pakistan, said the men wanted to join Islamist militants in the country's tribal area before crossing into Afghanistan and said they met with a banned organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed in Hyderabad, and with representatives of a related group, Jamat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore.
"They were asking to be recruited, trained and sent on jihad," Islam said.
But Islam said those groups turned them down because they did not have any "references" from trusted militants. A Pakistani police official told The New York Times that the extremists turned down the Americans because they did not speak Urdu, the national language, and were deemed too Western in demeanor.
Islam said the arrested Americans had spent the past few days in Sargodha, 125 miles south of the capital, Islamabad, before their arrest.
The men used the social networking site Facebook and the Internet video site YouTube to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan, said S.M. Imran Gardezi, the press minister at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. When they arrived in Pakistan, they took that effort to the street.
"They were trying to link up to some groups, but there is no evidence for now that there was a definite plan," Gardezi said.
Local Pakistanis became suspicious of the young men and tipped off police, he said. Police arrested the group in a home belonging to the uncle of one of the men. Gardezi said the uncle had past ties to extremist groups.
Gardezi said the men have not been turned over to the FBI and that Pakistan intended to carry out its own legal process.
Another Pakistani law enforcement official, Usman Anwar, the local police chief in Sargodha, told The Associated Press the five are "directly connected" to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"They are proudly saying they are here for jihad" or holy war, Anwar said.
U.S. diplomats have met with the five men.
"We have had access to the five detainees," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Thursday. She called the move "part of the usual outreach" of the U.S. government and declined further comment.
A key break in the case came not from federal agents or spies, but parents worried their sons may have made a terrible decision.
The families, based in the Washington area, were particularly concerned after watching what is described as a disturbing farewell video from the young men, showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended.
"One person appeared in that video and they made references to the ongoing conflict in the world and that young Muslims have to do something," said Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The video has not been made public.
After the disappearance of the five men in late November, their families, members of the local Muslim community, sought help from CAIR, which put them in touch with the FBI and got them a lawyer.
The missing men range in age from 19 to 25. One, Ramy Zamzam, is a dental student at Washington's Howard University.
Pakistani police officer Tahir Gujjar identified three of the others under arrest as Eman Yasir, Waqar Hasan, and Umer Farooq.
The fifth young man was identified as Ahmed Mimi by a Pakistani government official in Washington, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to a Pakistani official who also spoke on condition of anonymity, the group applied for travel visas in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. On their visa applications, their stated reason for travel was to attend a friend's marriage and go sightseeing. They were arrested Monday, the official said.
Farooq's father, Khalid Farooq, also was detained. Pakistan police officials say the elder Farooq had a computer business in Virginia and shuttled between the United States and Pakistan. Investigators are trying to establish what role if any he played in the men's alleged activities, officials said.
The detained U.S. nationals admitted that Khalid Farooq brought them to Pakistan with a promise to help them hold meetings with Pakistani militant leaders, a U.S. intelligence official told NBC News.
The officer said the group traveled to Haiderabad district in Sindh province, and Faisalabad in Punjab.
‘Jihadi training’ effort
In Faisalabad, the Americans held a meeting with local leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammad at which they expressed their desire to visit the tribal areas along the Afghan border and get some militant training.
According to the Pakistani intelligence officer, leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammad were suspicious about their activities and reportedly refused to help the American nationals.
"Their aim was to visit the tribal areas and get jihadi training," explained the intelligence officer.
He said they were trying to ascertain from the detainees who had brought them to Pakistan and what their plan was after getting militant training in the tribal areas.
"Most probably they wanted to cross into Afghanistan and fight against the U.S.-led occupying forces," the intelligence officer told NBC News.
The men have not been charged. It was not clear if they had been appointed local lawyers.
The local police chief, Anwar, said officers seized a laptop, jihadi literature and maps of Pakistani cities from the men.
They were arrested Wednesday at a four-bedroom house in Sargodha linked to Jaish-e-Mohammed, Pakistani officers said. Islam said investigators are sharing their findings with FBI officials now in Sargodha.
However, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Snelshire told NBC News that the FBI delegation was in Islamabad to hold talks with regard to alleged terror plotter Chicagoan David Headley and had nothing "to do with the issue of Sargodha arrests."
He said "once the identity of those who have been arrested in Sargodha is confirmed, then we will seek consular access from Pakistan government."
On the heels of charges against the Chicago man accused of plotting international terrorism, the case is another worrisome sign that Americans can be recruited within the United States to enlist in terrorist networks.
President Barack Obama declined to talk specifically about the case Thursday, but said, "We have to constantly be mindful that some of these twisted ideologies are available over the Internet."
Obama, in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, also praised "the extraordinary contributions of the Muslim-American community, and how they have been woven into the fabric of our nation in a seamless fashion."
A Virginia Muslim leader said the five men did not seem to have become militant before they left the U.S.
"From all of our interviews, there was no sign they were outwardly radicalized," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik.
Pakistan has many militant groups based in its territory and the U.S. has been pressing the government to crack down on extremism. Al-Qaida and Taliban militants are believed to be hiding in lawless tribal areas near the Afghan border.
According to officials at CAIR, the five left the country at the end of November without telling their families.
After the young men left, at least one phoned his family still claiming to be in the United States, but the caller ID information suggested they were overseas.
A Howard University spokesman confirmed Zamzam was a student there but declined further comment.
Samirah Ali, president of Howard University's Muslim Student Association, said the FBI contacted her last week about Zamzam, and told her he had been missing for a week. Ali said she's known Zamzam for three years and never suspected he would be involved in radical activities.
"He's a very nice guy, very cordial, very friendly," Ali said.
One of Zamzam's younger brothers, interviewed at the family's Alexandria, Va., apartment, said Zamzam has a 4.0 grade-point average.
"He's a good guy," the brother said, identifying himself only by a nickname, "Zam." "He's a normal Joe."