Pakistani authorities said they were aware of the five American students’ travel plans to Pakistan even before they arrived overseas, a senior U.S. official told NBC News.
People with knowledge of the case told The Associated Press that FBI agents had questioned some of the young Americans. Agents are gathering evidence to see if there is enough to charge them with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation, the AP said.
The students could face up to seven years of imprisonment, a senior officer in Pakistan told NBC News on Saturday. But he added that "since an official arrest has not been registered therefore deportation is still an open option."
Officials in both countries expect the five to be deported back home, but Pakistan may hold them long enough for U.S. prosecutors to prepare charges.
Pakistani officials had monitored communications between the students and a man in Pakistan, who reportedly reached out to one of the five students through the Internet video site YouTube, a U.S. official told NBC. This official also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The five men tried to contact militants and stayed in touch with each other through the Internet, Pakistani security officials said, highlighting the difficulty authorities face in trying to track and disrupt plots organized online. One student left behind a video saying fellow Muslims must be defended, which raised alarm with family members.
While Pakistani officials have said the men admitted trying to connect with militant groups, an FBI note sent to American lawmakers said the bureau has “no information linking them to terrorist organizations.”
The State Department official said it's unclear if the students broke any Pakistani or U.S. laws during their stay in Pakistan. The five allegedly told local investigators they were trying to connect with al-Qaida-linked militant groups and intended to cross the border into Afghanistan and fight U.S. troops there.
The State Department official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the unfolding case.
They men were reported missing by their families in the Washington, D.C., area a week ago after one of them left behind a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended.
No charges but deportation expected
Pakistani police detained them this week — along with one of their fathers — in Sargodha, a town in the eastern province of Punjab.
“They are under investigation. We need to establish their links,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told The Associated Press. “We are getting information that they had plans to travel to the tribal areas. We need to know which people they wanted to see and what their contacts were.”
A senior government official in Punjab said the overall legal process could take weeks.
Amir Sherazi, a member of the team interrogating the men, said they were being questioned in five separate cells.
“They are in good health. They are eating,” he said in a telephone interview.
The case has fanned fears that Americans and other Westerners — especially those of Pakistani descent — are traveling to Pakistan to join up with al-Qaida and other militant groups. It comes on the heels of charges against a Chicago man of Pakistani origin who is accused of surveying targets for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
One of the five men being held is identified as an Egyptian American named Ramy Zamzam, who is a dental student at Howard University in Washington.
The others were identified as Waqar Hussain, Aman Yamar, Ahmad Abdul Mimi, Umer Farooq and his father, Khalid Farooq. Pakistani officials have given various spellings of their names. The FBI note said two of the young men are of Ethiopian descent, and two are of Pakistani descent. The note was provided by a congressional official on condition of anonymity because it was not a public document.
Pakistan police officials say the elder Farooq had a computer business in Virginia and shuttled between the U.S. and Pakistan. Investigators are still trying to establish what role — if any — he played in the men’s alleged activities, officials said.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that helped bring the case of the missing men to the FBI’s attention, 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 he was overseas.
Islam, the police official, said Thursday the five men wanted to join militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas before crossing into Afghanistan. He said they met representatives from the al-Qaida-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group in the southeastern city of Hyderabad and from a related group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore, but were turned away because they were not trusted.
Pakistan has many militant groups based on 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 the lawless tribal belt near the Afghan border.
In August, police arrested a group of foreigners, including a Swede who had spent time in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, close to the Afghan border region and publicly accused them of al-Qaida links. They were held for over a month before being released and put on a plane out of the country.