Five young Muslim Americans were detained in Pakistan this week. Investigators close to the case believe the five wanted to train in terrorist camps, making them the most recent Americans known to have been radicalized in the U.S. who then traveled abroad to act on their beliefs.
FBI agents have started interviewing the five young men, who are said to be cooperating with investigators. Officials are now beginning to piece together the outlines of a case against the men. For example, U.S. officials say the young men used the Internet — specifically the social networking site Facebook and videos on YouTube — to link up with extremist groups in Pakistan.
"Basically most of the noise on the Internet are the clarion calls to battle from the jihadis, the inspirational and motivational messages that they communicate," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "And there has really been almost no concerted, systematic and strategic effort to counter those messages."
This case provides more evidence that radical Islam's Internet messages are effective, according to Sam Rascoff, who used to work at the intelligence desk at the New York Police Department. He says the Internet is managing to spur would-be warriors to action. "At some point they switch from being self-starting entrepreneurs to people who want to join the organization," he says. "I think it is that transition that is terribly interesting and we don't know enough about."
The young men from the Washington, D.C., area left clues about their intentions. Officials said a search of their computers showed they had watched YouTube videos that focused on U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
One of the young men also left a video message for his parents. The head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, says he saw the 11-minute video. "I walked away with the feeling this was disturbing that young people think this way and they're angry [and] this may lead them to do something wrong," he said.
U.S. officials say they believe the young men were trying to get to camps in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is just a few hours' drive from where the five were picked up by Pakistani authorities. Officials are trying to figure out whether the young men had already offered their services to various organizations and had been rejected, or were preparing to travel to the border regions to get training at a terrorist camp.
Would-be recruits are often rejected by terrorist groups if they don't have the right people vouching for them. Back in October, a Boston man was arrested for allegedly trying to offer his services to a jihadi camp in Yemen. He also had been inspired by the Internet to make the trip. In that case, he didn't have the right connections and didn't make the cut. He came back to the U.S. without training. Officials say another factor may be that so many people are showing up at the camps, jihadi leaders can afford to be choosy.
"The question really is, 'Are more homegrown Americans training in Pakistan than before?' " says Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University's Law and Security Center. "And if so, how do we counter this and what does it mean for the future?"
Bruce Hoffman sees the Internet recruiting efforts as part of a calculated strategy. He says al-Qaida and other jihadi groups are using these lower-level Internet recruits to overwhelm U.S. law enforcement with small plots, so they can have the space they need to plan bigger ones.
"I think that the Internet was correctly seen by al-Qaida and its fellow jihadis as a vacuum they could fill and they have filled it very well," Hoffman says. "And we are just now, unfortunately, paying increased attention to this particular new threat."
President Obama, in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, declined to talk specifically about this latest case. He did say "we have to constantly be mindful that some of these twisted ideologies are available over the Internet."