SARGODHA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Five young Americans detained in Pakistan, which is fighting a violent Taliban insurgency, wanted to join a holy war and were in contact with militants through the Internet, officials said on Thursday.
The five men, students in their 20s from northern Virginia, were detained this week in the city of Sargodha in Punjab province, 190 km (120 miles) southeast of Islamabad, security officials said.
The suspects were being investigated for possible links to a Pakistan-based group suspected of carrying out high-profile attacks and with links to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The case will likely again focus attention on nuclear-armed Pakistan’s performance in fighting militants as Washington presses Islamabad to root out Islamist fighters crossing the border to attack U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
“We watched them for one and a half days and then arrested them,” Usman Anwar, police chief of Sargodha, told reporters.
“We seized laptops and other things from their possession. Later we came to know that they have come here with the intention of ‘jihad’.”
The case could fan fears in Western countries that the sons of immigrants from Muslim countries are being drawn to violent Islamist militancy, a process made easier by the Internet.
In Washington, the FBI said one of its agents and two other officials from the U.S. embassy in Pakistan had spoken with some of the men, four of whom were found to have U.S. passports.
“Discussions concerning their possible return to the United States are still under way,” the FBI said.
A Pakistani security official said the men were detained on Monday. They had flown to Karachi on November 30 and then traveled to Lahore on December 5, and then on to Sargodha, he said.
“No charge has been framed against them. Investigations are under way as to whether they have any links with extremist groups,” said the official.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said investigators were seeking to gather information. “We’ve reached no conclusions ... there’s a lot of conjecture being bandied about.”
The suspects were wary about being detected through sending emails so instead they shared a password so different members of their group could access the same email site and read messages saved there as drafts, the Pakistani official said. “This is the same method used by al Qaeda,” he said.
The suspects also surfed the Internet to get access to Pakistan-based militant groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), he said.
The concrete house where the men were arrested was deserted on Thursday, its white gate locked. Neighbors confirmed security men had raided the house three days ago but they said they had no idea about the people who had been living there.
There were no police on duty at the house next to a petrol station in a middle-class neighborhood, but plain-clothes security men were in the area.
Officials said three Pakistanis had also been detained, one of whom was believed to have been linked to a 2007 suicide bomb attack on an air force bus outside an air base in Sargodha in which eight people were killed.
The Americans were in contact with militant groups in Pakistan through the Internet. Laptops, computers, CDs, mobile phones and maps of Pakistani cities had been recovered from them, said Anwar.
They had links to towns in northwest Pakistan, including the al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold of Miranshah. “They might have been on their way to Afghanistan,” Anwar told Reuters.
The suspects were being investigated for links with the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad group. The Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Army of the Prophet Mohammad, has links with al Qaeda and the Taliban.
It is one of several factions with roots in Punjab province that have been battling Indian forces in disputed Kashmir.
The group was suspected of involvement in attacks including the murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 and an assassination attempt on former president Pervez Musharraf.
Rashid Rauf, a British militant suspected of being ringleader of a 2006 plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, was also a Jaish member. Officials said one of the Americans was of Egyptian origin, one of Yemeni origin and another of Eritrean origin.
News of the arrests came as a Chicago man with Pakistani roots, accused of scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India, pleaded not guilty in a Chicago court on Wednesday.
David Headley is being investigated in the United States for alleged ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was blamed for the Mumbai rampage which killed 166 people.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Andrew Quinn in Washington; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Robert