SARGODHA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Five Americans suspected of using the Internet to contact militant groups to carry out terrorist attacks told a Pakistani court on Monday they had only wanted to give fellow Muslims financial and medical aid.
The students, in their 20s and from the U.S. state of Virginia, were detained last month. Police officials said emails showed they had contacted the Taliban, and that the group had planned to use them for attacks in Pakistan.
The suspects appeared at an anti-terrorism court and were remanded until January 18, said defense lawyer Mohammad Amir Khan.
“The five men denied having been in contact with al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammad (a Pakistani militant group) or any other militant group,” he told Reuters after the hearing.
“They told the court they wanted to go to Afghanistan to help their Muslim brothers, like those needing medical or financial assistance, and had no plans to carry out any activity in Pakistan.”
Police told the court the five men were in contact with an al Qaeda operative identified as Saifullah, Khan told Reuters. Police have said they would seek a life sentence for the men.
“They had deep interest in the religion and they were of the opinion that a Jihad must be waged against the infidels for the atrocities committed by them against Muslims around the world,” said a police interrogation report last month.
It showed pictures of a clip of a suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in Kabul posted on YouTube. The report said suspect Ahmed Abdullah Minni regularly visited the YouTube site and used to praise such videos. Shortly after Minni became a registered YouTube user he was contacted by Saifullah, said the report.
The case has illustrated how easy it is for anyone to pursue dreams of joining jihad through cyberspace, a worrying reality for U.S. ally Pakistan, already struggling on the ground against Taliban insurgents.
It also underscores increasingly complex security challenges in the U.S.-led global “war on terror.”
The Internet offers instant, inexpensive channels to some of the world’s most dangerous militant groups, and extremists still manage international travel despite efforts to identify them and restrict their movements.
In another such step, air travelers from Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and nine other countries will face full-body pat downs before boarding airliners under security screening procedures targeting foreign passengers announced by the United States on Sunday.
The procedures, which go into effect on Monday, follow the botched Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner, blamed on a Nigerian man U.S. officials believe was trained by al Qaeda in Yemen.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, was arrested by U.S. authorities after being accused of carrying a bomb sewn into his underwear onto the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25.
He got through security screening in Amsterdam, and was subdued by passengers and crew after trying to blow up the plane.
The five Americans were arrested in Sargodha, home to one of Pakistan’s biggest airbases, 190 km (120 miles) southeast of the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
The men — two are of Pakistani ancestry, one of Egyptian, one of Yemeni and one of Eritrean — have not been charged. They were found with maps and had intended to travel through northwest Pakistan to an al Qaeda and Taliban militant stronghold on the Afghan border, officials have said.
Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal lands bordering Afghanistan are known sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who fled the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The court ordered the release of Khalid Farooq, father of Pakistani suspect Umar Farooq, one of the Americans, after police said they did not find any evidence against him.
Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Michael Georgy and Jerry Norton