Americans held in Pakistan 'wanted to join jihad'

Five young Americans detained in Pakistan, which is fighting an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency, wanted to join a holy war and were in contact with militants through the Internet, officials said today.

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 US-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.

The US FBI said in a statement released in the United States on Wednesday it was in contact with the families of the five as well as law-enforcement authorities in Pakistan.

A Pakistani security official said the men were detained on Monday. They had flown to Karachi on Nov. 30 and then travelled to Lahore on Dec. 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.

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.

Pakistan news reports said 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 US 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.

A US Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said it brought the case to the attention of US law-enforcement authorities this month after family members informed CAIR of the men's disappearance.

CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad told a news conference he has watched an 11-minute video was left behind that appeared to be a "farewell" from the men. It did not say what the men planned but dealt with conflicts in the world and featured verses of the Koran, he said.