A Pakistani judge sentenced five Muslim Americans from the Washington area to 10 years in prison for terrorism offenses in a case that has heightened U.S. fears of homegrown militant violence.
Attorneys for both sides vowed to appeal the decision from the closed trial in an anti-terrorism court in Sargodha, 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of Islamabad, the capital. Prosecutor Nadeem Akram Cheema said the five friends from northern Virginia, aged 19 to 25 when police arrested them in December in the Punjab province city of Sargodha, should be imprisoned for life.
Defense Attorney Hassan Katchela expressed surprise at the decision, “since they were cleared in three of the five charges.” Judge Anwar Nazir exonerated the Americans on the most serious charges, involving conspiracy to commit terrorism in the U.S. and in Afghanistan, Katchela said in a telephone interview from Sargodha.
“They were convicted of funding proscribed organizations and conspiracy to commit crime and terrorism” in Pakistan, said Katchela. “We will appeal in the high court within seven days, where we hope they will be declared free.”
The case is at least the fourth since February in which Muslim U.S. citizens or long-time residents were convicted of seeking or getting terrorism training from al-Qaeda or the Taliban insurgent movement in Pakistan.
Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American living in Connecticut said June 21 the Taliban trained him in bomb-making as he pleaded guilty in New York to charges arising from his attempt to explode an SUV loaded with explosives in Times Square.
The Obama administration said in its National Security Strategy, issued on May 27, that “several recent incidences of violent extremists in the United States who are committed to fighting here and abroad have underscored the threat to the United States and our interests posed by individuals radicalized at home.”
The Virginia men deny they were in Pakistan to meet militants, saying they had come for a wedding. They have been identified as Ramy Zamzam of Egyptian descent, Waqar Khan and Umar Farooq of Pakistani origin, and Aman Hassan Yemer and Ahmed Minni of Ethiopian descent, Associated Press reported.
From Sargodha, the men “were preparing to go and get training for jihad in North Waziristan,” a district on the Afghan border, Punjab’s law minister, Rana Sanaullah, has said. They had maps of North Waziristan and its main town, Miramshah, a stronghold of the Taliban movement, officials said.
North Waziristan is controlled by Taliban factions and hosts militant groups that are part of al-Qaeda, say residents and U.S. officials. It serves as a key center of the militants’ war against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s army has been attacking other Taliban factions in other border regions with Afghanistan as part of a year-long escalation in the war between the government and Islamic militants.
In February, Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York subway system. Like Shahzad, he grew up in Pakistan.
On March 18, Chicago resident David Coleman Headley entered a guilty plea to charges arising from terrorism training and spying missions that he said helped Pakistani militants linked to al-Qaeda plan terrorist attacks abroad. These included the November 2008 assault on Mumbai, India, that killed 164 people, including six Americans.
The five men from Virginia disappeared from home in November last year, Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Dec. 9 in Washington. One left behind an 11-minute “farewell” video that “misused” verses from the Koran in a way that showed a “profound misunderstanding,” Awad said.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation aided in the investigation into the five men, Sanaullah said last year.