WASHINGTON, June 13 (UPI) -- The United States and Pakistan are checking the nationality of some half a dozen men claiming U.S. citizenship who have been arrested in Pakistan near the Afghan border because of their association with al Qaida terrorists and Taliban extremists, Pakistani security officials told United Press International Thursday.
Officials say most of the so-called Western jihadis or holy warriors who are accused of fighting in Afghanistan were converts to Islam who, unhappy with their own backgrounds, took up with Islamic extremists to satisfy their newfound religious zeal.
UPI reported Tuesday that Pakistani authorities have detained a number of people they described as "of U.S. origin" in the closed tribal zone near the border with Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials are now telling UPI that other Westerners -- including Britons and Frenchmen -- have joined the jihad.
The Pakistani Embassy in Washington confirmed that arrests had been made, but refuses to discuss "the nationalities of the detainees or other operative details," spokesman Asad Hayauddin said Thursday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference in Islamabad on Thursday that the Pakistani "government has arrested ... a very large number of al Qaida and Taliban," which "enables us to work to prevent additional terrorist attacks."
Hayauddin described this as "an ongoing campaign," adding, "giving specific details could hurt the operation."
Other Pakistani officials, reached by telephone in Islamabad, say that legal implications prevent them from disclosing the identities of the detainees, particularly those who claim U.S. citizenship.
"U.S. authorities tell us that U.S. laws do not permit them to accuse American citizens of criminal offenses without proper investigations. They want to collect as much evidence against these people as possible before disclosing their identities," said a senior Pakistani security official who did not want to be identified.
Another official said the Pakistanis were holding two types of western jihadis: Christian Americans who converted to Islam and some people of Muslim origin who claim U.S. citizenship. "We are still verifying their claims," he added.
One of the suspected Western jihadis has been identified as Mohammed Bin Yameen, or Benjamin, one of the officials said. He arrested last month with another Western national while trying to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan. Both say that they are U.S. citizens.
Pakistani security officials would not say whether they were associates of Jose Padilla, a New York-born Hispanic-American detained last month for allegedly trying to build a radiation dispersal bomb intended for detonation in an American city.
"He continued to hide his American name even after his arrest. It took us sometime to determine that Bin Yameen, also a common Muslim name, is actually Benjamin. We still do not know his real last name," said a Pakistani security official.
Pakistani officials say that FBI agents in Pakistan are interrogating the suspected U.S. jihadis. "Although they are still in Pakistani prison facilities, technically they are with FBI whose agents are interrogating them. As far as we are concerned, the FBI can take them to America tomorrow if they want," said a Pakistani official. "We have given them to the Americans."
An official in Washington, however, denied the United States has taken custody of any American nationals from the Pakistanis. He said that they are still not certain if they are American citizens and are also trying to determine if they have been involved with al Qaida and Taliban, as the Pakistanis claim.
Westerners were attracted to Afghanistan soon after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and many joined the Afghan Mujahedin fighting the Russian army. Their numbers dwindled after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, "but both Americans and other Western volunteers continued to come after the Soviet withdrawal as well," says Mufti Muhammad Iltimas, a radical Islamic cleric who runs a Muslim seminary -- Madrasah Arabia Hassani -- near the Afghan border.
"These new converts are more eager to participate in the jihad than their Pakistani and Arab comrades and are not reluctant to join dangerous operations," said the cleric in a recent interview to a group of Pakistani journalists.
John Walker Lindh, the American charged with fighting alongside the Taliban, studied at Iltimas's seminary. He joined the school on Nov. 27, 2000 as a student of Koran and Islamic studies and stayed there till May 15, 2001 "but the harsh Pakistani summer forced him to leave the school for Afghanistan's cooler climate," Iltimas said.
The cleric said converts were "the best students" who had "an unquenchable desire for knowledge" and often studied "late into the night."
Iltimas runs a school of the Deobandi sect of Islam in the Bannu district of Pakistan's northwest frontier province. Being close to Afghanistan, it also attracted hundreds of Taliban and it was in this madrasa that Lindh met the members of the ferocious Afghan militia.
Founded in northern India in the 19th century, the Deobandi sect practices a strict version of Islam. Like the ruling Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, the Deobandis also urge Muslims to purify their lives by returning to the fundamentals of Islam and encourage them to give up such worldly pleasures as watching television or listening to music.
They enjoy close ties with the Wahabis and some of them also acknowledge receiving financial assistance from their patrons in Saudi Arabia.
Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers also belonged to this sect.
Prominent Deobandi leaders openly supported Osama bin Laden and one of them -- Maulana Fazlur Rahman -- issued a religious edict in 1998, saying that Muslims will be obliged to kill any American they saw, if Washington killed bin Laden. The edict was issued after U.S. rocket attacks on bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan and Sudan following the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Coming to Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of Islamic education, most converts are unfortunately exposed to such a militant form of Islam soon after their conversion. "Young and impressionable, they are easily lured into joining the holy war," said a Pakistani intelligence officer who monitors the madrasas for his agency.
Now 21, Lindh was only 16 when he converted and faces multiple counts of conspiracy before a federal court in Virgina. His trial is slated to begin in late August.
Pakistani officials told UPI that the so-called shoe-bomber, Briton Richard C. Reid, also briefly studied at Iltimas's madrasah before joining al Qaida. Reid has been charged with attempting to blow up an American airliner using explosives hidden in his boots, and is now in U.S. jail awaiting trial.
Iltimas was arrested last month in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid on his seminary but was later released.