The arrest of five American Muslims in Pakistan for involvement in possible terrorist activities is challenging the US Muslim community in ways they may have not expected: It appears that some of their best and brightest may have been susceptible to recruitment efforts by international terrorist organizations.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the five men do not fit the typical profile of other Americans arrested on terrorist-related charges. These men came from middle-class homes and were educated and assimilated – unlike suspects such as David Coleman Headley, who was arraigned in Chicago this week for conspiracy in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and in a plot to attack a Danish newspaper. The five are also unlike a number of Somali men who left Minnesota over the past two years and are believed to have joined a terror group in Somalia.
One man in the latest case, Ramy Zamzam, attended the dental program at Howard University in Washington.
“This might be most clear wake-up call for the American Muslim community,” says Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “These were the kids who should have been clear about what Islam says, but somehow they got a radical message. I’m not sure they got it from their parents or the mosque they attended – so where did they get it from? That’s the question the American Muslim community wants an answer to.”
He adds, “This may be a real slap in the face…. They thought they were immune to this type of thing.”
The five men, ages 19 to 25, traveled to Pakistan in November from their homes in the northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area, according to federal investigators. Their travels did not initially create commotion, but their parents discovered a video featuring the men expressing extremist sympathies, and they alerted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. According to CAIR, its officials then alerted the FBI, which worked with Pakistani authorities.
The case is already being treated differently from the cases in Chicago and Minnesota – not just because of the men’s more affluent background, but also because of the proactive measures taken by the Muslim community that led to their capture.
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims have often felt a need to defend their religion against perceptions that it was somehow fostering terrorist behavior or that certain mosques or organizations were linked to international terrorist organizations. “Muslims had no other choice: They had to go out and talk about their own faith; they had to condemn violence,” says Malika Zeghal, who specializes in religion and Islamic studies at the University of Chicago.
Making matters more complicated, relationships between law enforcement and Muslim organizations have worsened in recent years. Relations between the FBI and CAIR, one of the largest Muslim US civil rights organizations, have been particularly strained for about a year.
But now, CAIR is credited with playing an important role in bringing about the arrest of the five men. The parents, of course, also played a key role.
CAIR is using the case to try to correct misperceptions about its mission and to reiterate that its community denounces terrorism.
At a news conference Wednesday, Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR, said the Muslim-American community recognizes that “we have a problem.” He framed the case as representing a small minority within the community, saying that education efforts will be launched to confront recruiting efforts by overseas terror groups.
Bagby says he hopes that CAIR “is an asset and a good partner.”
He also says, “It is a clear indication that these parents, as all American-Muslim parents, do not want their children involved in such extremism, and [they] recognize that it must be stopped. And the FBI is a good partner for that.”