The five young American men detained in Pakistan earlier this week betrayed no hints of extremism back home. Yet they suddenly left their families in the Washington, D.C., area and turned up in Pakistan, where authorities believe they were looking to gain entry to terrorist training camps. Back home, community leaders are trying to make sure that such an episode doesn't happen again.
"It was like, you know, an earthquake just hit us. We're just stunned, bubble-eyed," youth group leader Mustafa Maryam says. He met with the young men every week. They prayed at a single-story building just off Route 1. It's surrounded by car dealerships and a Firestone tire shop. It was supposed to be a place where Muslim leaders like Maryam could protect the community's kids.
"We'd rather have you at the mosque than in the street. We'd rather you have — and be in — a positive environment than with thugs," he says.
But those thugs weren't on the street; apparently they were online. According to reports, the five young men were radicalized after watching YouTube videos and communicating on social networking sites.
Maryam didn't see hints in any of this. He sees more truth in the reports that the men, devout Muslims, had traveled to Pakistan to find wives.
"As far as I know, they're all virgin kids. Everybody dreams about the day that they'll get married. So many conversations, so many discussions about marriage," he says. "That makes more sense to me than this stuff I'm hearing."
At the mosque's youth group, Maryam tried to bring the young people together to protect them — they played basketball and soccer, went to movies and meals together. And yet it didn't work.
"This is indeed a wake-up call," says Mahdi Bray, spokesman for the Muslim American Society, a national Muslim organization. "We are determined not to let religious extremists exploit the vulnerability of our young peoples' emotion."
Yet this is a community that thought it was doing everything right. There was the youth group. One of them was studying to be a dentist. And as soon as it was clear that something was wrong — that their kids were missing — the parents and local leaders contacted the FBI.
Parent Issam Talawi says that was not an easy thing to do. "I was so anxious and so nervous, I'm gonna meet with FBI agents, and I should say nobody would describe this as a pleasant experience," he says.
Muslim Americans say their mosques are still treated with suspicion, even all these years after the Sept. 11 attacks. The conflict over whether to say anything — and even if they do, whether anyone will listen — is something Muslims constantly struggle with.
"There's actually a problem of exclusion," says Salam Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He says mosques should no longer be marginalized or stigmatized.
"We, the United States, have a major asset in the war on terror that is not being utilized — the mosques and Muslim Americans in general," Marayati says.
Muslim leaders are touting this case as a success, though, because the families felt comfortable enough to contact the authorities — and law enforcement agencies reciprocated. More understanding between the two will only benefit everyone, they say.
"I think they came to know that our community is a law-abiding community," Talawi says. "We are good citizens. We are the ones who approached the authorities. We are the ones who went to them and told them there's something wrong. And we need your help."
Community leaders believe that the mosque is part of the solution, not the problem. But, they admit, they cannot supervise every aspect of a young man's life.