Five men from Northern Virginia were detained at a house in Sargodha, a town in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The house reportedly belonged to Khalid Farooq, the father of one of the young men, Umer Farooq. According to police sources cited by the NY Times, Khalid Farooq is said to have ties to Jaish-e-Muhammad, a banned Punjabi militant group. The NY Times added in its coverage, “Pakistani news reports also said security officials linked the house to the militant group.”
The story garnered much Western media attention earlier on Wednesday, though most news agencies could not say whether the five men, three of Pakistani heritage, one Egyptian and one Yemeni (all were American citizens), had any direct links to terrorism or were even the same five men who had disappeared from their homes in Alexandria, Virginia late last month. However, as the story developed and more details were known, the Washington Post confirmed all five men, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were reported missing by their families last week in the U.S. and were taken into custody near Lahore on Monday. According to the Post,
The men…went overseas without telling their families, who grew concerned after a family member called one of them on his cellphone and “the conversation ended abruptly,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
CAIR reportedly got the men’s families in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last week, where they played an 11-minute English video “with jihadist undertones” for agents and Muslim leaders at a lawyer’s office. Discussing the video with the Washington Post, Awad said, “I was very disturbed by the contents. . . . It made references to the ongoing conflicts in the world and that a Muslim has to do something about them,” adding that it showed “a profound misunderstanding and potential misuse of Koranic verses.”
However, although Awad called the video “a farewell statement,” law enforcement sources assert that there is no evidence verifying this claim, adding they “had no information on the men’s intentions.” One official further noted that they had no reason to believe there “was some big plot or big plan…Our primary focus is, let’s get them back safely.”
Looking at the facts so far, it seems there is little direct evidence so far linking these young men to terrorism. Nevertheless, the Western media coverage of the development has been interesting. First, the story gained significantly more traction in the Western/U.S. media than in Pakistan, where the arrests actually took place, [though Pakistani outlets did cover the story Thursday]. Second, several of these news agencies framed the arrests in light of the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas and the charges filed this week against David Headley, a Chicago man accused of links to last year’s Mumbai attacks, [Headley, a Pakistani-American, pleaded not guilty in court today]. The NY Times in its coverage Wednesday noted these recent arrests come “at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism” in the United States. However, by grouping today’s arrests with Fort Hood and Headley, are news outlets in effect sealing their guilt or merely pointing out a potential trend?
Newsweek cited a source familiar with the investigation, who noted the family “of at least one of the detained men attends the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, located in a Virginia suburb of Washington,” the same mosque also once attended by Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter. Newsweek added, “Before 9/11, one of the mosque’s preachers, Anwar al-Awlaki, was in contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers.”
If this news coverage is reflective of anything, it’s of the increasing interconnected and transnational nature of militancy, a point that is certain to have ramifications for Pakistan if this story plays out. It also seems to indicate an increasing U.S. paranoia reminiscent of the months following 9/11. While this paranoia is not unfounded (Fort Hood was of course an immense tragedy), I find it disconcerting that we cry, “witch!” with near reckless abandon before all the facts have been revealed. I also find it sad that the Muslim-American community has to constantly be on the defensive, releasing immediate statements in the aftermath of such developments, initiating campaigns to educate Americans about Islam.
I’ll leave you with a quote by Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust, who recently raised an important point worthy of debate:
There is no need for one Muslim to condemn the crimes of another. Collective responsibility cannot, and should not, be accepted. Where one accepts collective responsibility one opens the door to collective punishment. Are Muslims individuals? Or are they one singular marionette that pirouettes each time its string is pulled?