Five Americans detained in Pakistan told a court Monday they intended to cross the border into Afghanistan to wage jihad against Western forces but denied any links to al-Qaida or plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
The admission could be a prelude to possible U.S. conspiracy charges but might also draw sympathy from an increasingly anti-American Pakistani public. Such feelings have complicated U.S. efforts to persuade Pakistan to do more to crack down on militants carrying out cross-border attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan.
"We are not terrorists," one of the five men, Ramy Zamzam, told The Associated Press as he entered the courtroom in the eastern Pakistani city of Sargodha, where they were arrested in December.
‘Jihad is not terrorism’
"We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism," said Zamzam, a 22-year-old Egyptian American who was a dental student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Jihad has several different meanings in Islam, but Zamzam seemed to be referring to the duty to fight against foreign forces viewed as occupying a Muslim country.
Zamzam and another member of the group, Ethiopian American Ahmed Minni, insisted the men had no links with al-Qaida and were focused only on Afghanistan, according to court documents.
"They said that they only intended to travel to Afghanistan to help their Muslim brothers who are in trouble, who are bleeding and who are being victimized by Western forces," said the group's lawyer, Ameer Abdullah Rokhri.
It was the first time the men, aged 19 to 25 and all from the Washington area, have addressed a court since their arrest. They arrived wearing a mix of Western clothes, such as jeans and tracksuits, and traditional shalwar kameez robes. They were handcuffed as they entered and exited the hearing, which was closed to media. A couple of them laughed and smiled as they left.
Pakistani police have not filed formal charges but say they plan to seek life sentences under the country's anti-terrorism law.
"We have told the court that police have completed their investigation and have enough evidence against the five suspects to try them under anti-terrorism law," said police officer Matiullah Shahani.
The court remanded the men to prison for 14 days Monday to give police time to prepare the case.
Possible conspiracy charges
FBI agents have questioned some of the men and are working to see if there is enough evidence to charge any of them with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, officials have said. Another possible U.S. charge — and one that could be more difficult to bring — would be conspiracy to maim or kill people overseas.
Besides Zamzam and Minni, the other members of the group are Pakistani Americans Umer Farooq and Waqar Hussain and Egyptian American Aman Yamar. Farooq's father, Khalid, was also detained, but the court ordered him released Monday because of a lack of evidence that he committed any crime, said police officer Amir Shirazi.
The five young men were reported missing by their families in late November after one of them left behind a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended. The case has sparked fears that Westerners are increasingly traveling to Pakistan to join militant groups.
Pakistani police accuse the men of using the social networking site Facebook and the Internet video site YouTube while they were in the U.S. to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan.
The Taliban recruiter the men contacted may have planned to take the men to Mianwali, a district near Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have proliferated, according to police.
"if you are stoppd and questnd by govt on ur way 2 miawali say that u r going 2 chesma atomic power plant visiting ur uncle who is a technical engineer," said an e-mail from the Yahoo account which police said the men used to communicate with their militant contact.
"you should be wearing paki garments bright color 2 blend in," said the e-mail, which was provided to the AP by police investigators Monday.
The message was apparently referring to the Chasma Barrage — a complex located near nuclear power facilities that includes a water reservoir and other structures. Pakistan has a nuclear weapons arsenal, but also nuclear power plants for civilian purposes.
Al-Qaida link denied
Authorities say the five men had a map of the barrage in Punjab province about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Islamabad.
They are alleged to have 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 said to have been turned away because they were not trusted.
Their attorney, Rokhri, denied those allegations Monday, saying they didn't "have any link with al-Qaida or any banned organization like Jaish-e-Mohammed."
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined comment on the possibility that the presence of U.S. forces across the border was the magnet that drew the men.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said staff from the U.S. Consulate in Lahore were present at Monday's hearing and that consular officials have visited the men three times, most recently on Dec. 22.
"It's my understanding that they have been treated well so far," said Kelly.
Officials in both countries have said they expect the men eventually to be deported back to the United States, though charging them in Pakistan could delay that process. A Pakistani court ruled last month the men cannot be deported until judges review the case.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said anti-American sentiment could complicate efforts to deport the five men, especially now that Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government after nine years of military rule.
"When you have a non-democratic setup, issues which involve international cooperation are relatively simpler to handle," Ahmad said. "If Pakistan delays any cooperation in instantly handing over these suspects to the United States as was the history before, it's because we are in a qualitatively different political environment."