ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The arrest of five Americans in Pakistan seeking to join jihad has drawn further attention to a trend of Westerners coming here to sit at the feet of veteran Islamist fighters, then plot terror attacks at home or wherever else their passports allow them to travel.
But Wednesday’s arrests also show that Pakistani authorities are paying more attention to the threat and taking steps to clamp down, even if they are not taking on the local jihadi groups themselves.
The five US citizens – three of them of Pakistani origin – were arrested Wednesday in a home linked to militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), in the town of Sargodha in southern Punjab Province.
The arrests are just the latest evidence of American Muslims seeking to use militant training received in Pakistan to plot or help execute terror attacks. American David Headley pled not guilty in a Chicago courtroom on Wednesday to charges he scouted locations for last year’s Mumbai terror attack, which killed 174 people. Najibullah Zazi, arrested in September, faces trial for allegedly plotting a bomb attack in New York.
“It seems [the Pakistani authorities] have become more conscious of this international dimension of these groups based in Punjab,” says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst based in Lahore. “From this case it seems they are pursuing and quietly monitoring who goes on there, who meets with them,” a practice “which may not have been there in the past.”
Closely followed, then arrested
According to officials cited in media reports, the police began tracking the Americans from the moment they flew into Karachi last month. The five men then journeyed to Hyderabad, back to Karachi, then Lahore, and finally Sargodha.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to determine if these men are the same Americans who went missing in Virginia in November and left behind an alarming video saying that Muslims needed to be defended. It did not mention specific plans but appeared to be a “farewell,” said Nihad Awad, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who is working with the men’s families.
The men said Thursday that they had come to participate in jihad, Sargodha Police Chief Javed Islam told the Associated Press. It wasn’t clear if they had made contact with militant groups yet.
Countless local militants remain free
For each American arrested, however, many times more Pakistani militants spread across the Punjab remain untouched. The province, especially in the south, plays hosts to several long-established militant groups, including JeM, Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group linked to the Mumbai attacks, whose training camps Mr. Headley reportedly attended), Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In the 1980s and 90s, many of these organizations were cultivated by the government to fight the Indians in Kashmir or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some are now legally banned, but operate freely and retain popular support.
The authorities “will restrict their activities, but it’s difficult to say they will get rid of these groups because these groups have developed strong, vital links [in society]. They always have quiet sympathizers,” says Mr. Rizvi. “There’s a serious problem of political will because of domestic fallout.”
The Army is also reluctant to open too many fronts against militants at once, especially in the country’s Punjab heartland. For the past half year it has committed tens of thousands of soldiers to fight Pakistani Taliban factions operating in the northwest, first in the Swat Valley and now, since October, in the South Waziristan tribal area.
Another reason for hesitation is that the Punjabi groups have not attacked the state as brazenly as the Taliban have. Taliban groups have set up de facto governments in the northwest and have fought Army efforts to reclaim these areas. They have also launched bomb attacks in major cities, and in recent months more Punjabis have joined the Taliban fight.
Intelligence officials “know who are these groups and where they are based but they do tolerate these groups as long as they don’t create problems for the government,” says Rizvi.
Hosting Americans, however, is a problem, he says, because it “creates embarrassment” for the government.