The five young Americans detained in Pakistan as part of a terrorism investigation were wholesome kids who never exhibited any signs of religious extremism, according to the youth director at a mosque where they worshipped.
"I never observed any extreme behavior with them," said Mustafa Abu Maryam, who served as a volunteer youth director at the Islamic Circle of North America's small chapter mosque. It's in a converted single-family home in a residential neighborhood a few miles south of the Capital Beltway.
"I hope all of this is not true, and that this is not what it seems to be," said Abu Maryam, who spoke Friday at a news conference following the mosque's midday prayer services. "I never became suspicious that they were planning to harm anyone."
The men's families, all of whom are among the mosque's membership of 60 to 80 families and several of whom live nearby, reported them missing Dec. 1. Pakistani officials took the men into custody Monday and said they had acknowledged trying to connect with militant groups there, but the State Department says it is not yet clear whether the men have broken any Pakistani or U.S. laws.
FBI agents have questioned the five as U.S. investigators gather evidence that could lead to a conspiracy charge against them, an American official and another person familiar with the case said Friday.
Abu Maryam said youth activities at the mosque focused on keeping kids busy through sports and other activities. Religious discussions centered on basic issues, such as prayer and fasting.
"Our group discussions never talked about politics ... never talked about fighting against anyone," he said.
He declined to discuss the men in detail, citing respect for the families' privacy and concern about disrupting the investigation. But he said the men were fun-loving and talked about girls and other topics that would be typical for teenagers.
The men, now between the ages of 19 and 25, grew up attending youth activities at the mosque but came less frequently after starting college, said Dr. Essam Tellawi, a gastroenterologist who was the volunteer who gave Friday's sermons. He said in an interview that the men attended colleges in Washington; Richmond, Va., and northern Virginia, including George Mason University in Fairfax. One was a dental student at Howard University in Washington.
"We worry about their future," Tellawi said. "I'm surprised at the whole issue." He said the last thing one would think is the men would leave their colleges during final exams.
He said the men's families had attended the mosque since it was founded about nine years ago.
"We're all like a close family and we all love each other. We care for each other. So, this was a surprise," he said. He said Friday that the families are now going through "severe hardship" and he asked people to pray for them.
Mosque leaders said they teach a moderate form of Islam. Relatives became alarmed when the men went missing and they discovered a video that a national Muslim leader who viewed it described as a disturbing farewell message. The families contacted authorities at the mosque's urging.
"This is our country. We respect the laws of this country," Tellawi said. "We have been very cooperative with the law enforcement community."
'A good community'
Mahdi Bray, a spokesman for the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation who occasionally attends services at the ICNA mosque and has preached there, said the cooperation has paid off. While Bray has been critical of other federal terrorism investigations that have targeted Muslims, he said in this case the FBI had not jumped to conclusions.
"It has been handled in a very respectful way," Bray said. "It could have been infinitely worse" if the families and the mosque had not come forward.
Tellawi said the mosque hired a lawyer "to make sure our legal rights are preserved" and who could assist mosque members that the FBI seeks to interview. Tellawi said he had spoken to the FBI and "it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.
"The law enforcement authorities have come to know that our community is a good community," he said.