"It's above Jaish. It's something more serious than that," Anwar said in a telephone interview, referring to Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that's been implicated in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
News of the arrest in Sargodha, in central Punjab province, will fuel concerns that Pakistan is a magnetic draw for extremists across the world. The men were reported missing last month by their families back home. This was the third recent case of an alleged terrorist plot involving US citizens that's linked to Pakistan.
The five men were taken into custody last Saturday or earlier, after arriving in Pakistan on Nov. 30, officials said. Three are of Pakistani origin, one of Egyptian parentage and one of Yemeni origin. One of the men, whom police named as Umar Farouq, has ties to Sargodha, and they were staying in a family home there. The men are thought to be in their 20s, and one is a dental student from Howard University.
"They came to Pakistan for the specific purpose of doing jihad. Sargodha was a safe place for them, so that's why they came here," Anwar said. "They wanted to go to heaven, perhaps."
Police seized literature and a computer with a hard disk full of material, he said. News reports said that one of the men had made a video, apparently intended for his family, in which he said he'd left home to defend Islam.
While international attention has focused on Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups in the northwest of Pakistan, Punjab, in the east of the country, houses older Pakistani militant groups, some of which have developed close links with Al Qaeda. Jaish-e-Mohammad is based in the town of Bahawalpur, in the south of Punjab.
Sargodha is home to a Pakistani Air Force base that's associated with the country's nuclear program and has twice been the target of attacks by extremists, but police think that the presence of the men in the town may have been coincidental.
"One of the possibilities [is the Air Force Base] but I really don't think so. The attack was something more acute and bigger," Anwar said.
The police chief said that the men claimed they came to Pakistan because "they were about to look for a girl, to get married."
Pakistani law enforcement officers had tracked the men from the moment they arrived at Karachi international airport, and all carried US passports, a Pakistani official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to discuss the case with journalists, told McClatchy on Wednesday.
(For more on how Pakistan authorities are paying more attention to American Muslims entering the country, click here )
They traveled to the city of Hyderabad, returned to Karachi — the hub of commerce in Pakistan — and then went to Lahore, Punjab's provincial capital, where they spent five days before going to Sargodha, he said.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.
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