WASHINGTON – Five young Americans captured in Pakistan are under investigation for possibly trying to meet up with a terror group, authorities said Wednesday. Two U.S. officials said one of the men left a “farewell” video behind saying Muslims must be defended and showing images of U.S. casualties.
Frantic relatives and worried FBI agents have been searching for the five college-age men for more than a week, since their disappearance in late November. The missing students have family roots in the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area.
Two U.S. officials said one of the group they did not say which one left behind what investigators believe was a farewell video message, in which he talks about defending Muslims and shows images of U.S. casualties. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
Pakistan police officer Tahir Gujjar said five Americans were picked up in a raid on a house on Sarghoda in the eastern province of Punjab. He did not identify the five, but said three are of Pakistani descent, one is of Egyptian descent and the other has Yemeni heritage.
S.M. Imran Gardezi, press minister at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said the men “are under arrest in Pakistan. The investigation is to see whether they had any links to any extremist groups.” No charges have been filed.
Pakistani regional police chief Mian Javed Islam told The Associated Press that the men were between 18 and 20 and spent the past few days in the city of Sarghoda, which is near an air base about 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of the capital, Islamabad.
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s local office said agents have been trying to help find the men.
“The FBI is working with the families and local law enforcement to investigate the missing students and is aware of the individuals arrested in Pakistan,” Katherine Schweit said. “We are working with Pakistan authorities to determine their identities and the nature of their business there if indeed these are the students who had gone missing.”
She said the investigation continues and declined to comment further.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the five left the country at the end of November without telling their families. He told AP the five are from the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area and are acquaintances. He could not say exactly how they know each other.
Hooper said after the young men left, some made phone calls to their families still claiming to be in the United States, but the caller ID information suggested they were overseas.
The families, members of the local Muslim community, took their concerns to CAIR, which put them in touch with the FBI and got them a lawyer, Hooper said.
One of the men is Ramy Zamzam, a dental student at Howard University, according to the U.S. officials. A Howard University spokesman confirmed Zamzam was a student there but declined further comment.
Samirah Ali, president of Howard University‘s Muslim Student Association, said the FBI contacted her last week about Zamzam, and told her he had been missing for a week.
Ali said she’s known Zamzam for three years and never suspected he would be involved in radical activities.
“He’s a very nice guy, very cordial, very friendly,” Ali said, adding that he has a bubbly personality. “It really caught me off guard.”
U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said officials there were aware of the reported arrests, but could not confirm them.
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 safe havens in lawless tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Khan reported from Islamabad. Associated Press Writers Pamela Hess, Eileen Sullivan, and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.