Muslim leaders said Friday the five American youths arrested in Pakistan for allegedly attempting to join the al Qaeda network were lured through the Internet into embracing terrorist ideology and that they will wage a cyber counterattack.
"This is a wake-up call involving our youths — Muslims and Catholics," Imam Mahdi Bray said outside the Islamic Circle of North American Center, the Northern Virginia mosque in which the men worshipped and participated in youth-group activities.
"They see great injustices, and their emotions and passions are stirred, as they should be. … But we are determined not to let religious extremists exploit the vulnerability of our youth through slick, seductive and destructive propaganda on the Internet. We will respond in kind on the Internet. Silence in cyberspace is not an option."
Pakistani officials say the men allegedly asked an al Qaeda-linked group for training but were rejected because they lacked credentials.
They reportedly attempted first to contact jihadist groups in August through e-mails, then Facebook and YouTube. The men, ages 19 to 25, then went to Pakistan to set up meetings.
The men disappeared last month from the Washington, D.C., area. One left behind a militaristic video that prompted family members to contact the FBI.
Pakistani residents became suspicious of the young men and told police, who arrested them Tuesday in a home belonging to an uncle of one of the suspects.
The men, all U.S. citizens, have been identified as Eman Yasir, Waqar Hasan, Umer Farooq, Ahmed Mimi and Ramy Zamzam, a dental student at Howard University and the group's alleged ringleader. They allegedly told Pakistani authorities at first they were in the country to attend a wedding.
Mr. Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, said the small Alexandria mosque where the young men met taught lawfulness and dignity, which he called the "core values of our faith."
He and other religious leaders praised family members for taking swift action when their sons disappeared.
"This could have been much worse," Mr. Bray said.
Essam Tellawi, a spokesman for the Islamic center, said the mosque teaches the Koran and the teaching of the prophet Muhammad, including moderation, tolerance and peaceful interactions with neighbors.
"Pray for the five families," said Mr. Tellawi, dressed warmly outside the mosque on a cold, gray afternoon. "They are going through severe hardship. Pray [the men] get back safely and for a speedy resolution to this matter."
He declined to discuss specifics about the case, saying the matter remains under investigation.
Mustafa Abu Maryem, the mosque's youth coordinator, said he never suspected the young men of "bad behavior" and that they are "fun-loving" and have a "bright future."
"I hope all of this is not what it seems to be," he said.
Mr. Maryem said group activities focused on community events and sports, which were meant to be "positive forces in the young men's lives."
He also said discussions included ones on the positive aspects of marriage and the evils of gangs.
"We never talked about politics or fighting — directly or indirectly," Mr. Maryem said. "Our focus was community, community, community."