Washington FBI agents have questioned some of the young Americans arrested in Pakistan as U.S. investigators gather evidence that could lead to a conspiracy charge against them, an American official and another person familiar with the case said Friday.
Agents are working to see whether there is enough evidence to charge any of the five Muslim students with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, the two people said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
Officials in both countries expect the five, who are from the Washington, D.C., area, to be deported back home. But Pakistan may hold them long enough for U.S. prosecutors to prepare charges, and there was no immediate indication how long that might take.
While Pakistani officials have said the men admitted trying to connect with militant groups, an FBI note sent to American lawmakers Thursday evening said the bureau had “no information linking them to terrorist organizations.” That FBI note did not address whether the students attempted to join some terrorist group.
The other possible charge — and one that could be more difficult to bring — would be conspiracy to maim or kill people overseas.
“If they had reached an agreement amongst themselves and were pursuing an opportunity to train or fight with what they knew to be a foreign terrorist organization, then that would be a crime,” said Pat Rowan, the former head of the Justice Department’s national security division.
Making that case would depend greatly on what the men say to FBI agents — and whether any evidence or incriminating statements gathered by Pakistani police would meet U.S. legal standards.
“Where one needs to be at least a little skeptical is that that will translate into the sort of evidence that can be used in an American courtroom,” said Rowan.
Statements made by Americans to police overseas can be used against them in a U.S. trial, as long as the statements weren’t coerced. Another key source of evidence could be the men’s computers, on which Pakistani police say they found maps of areas where terrorists operate.
Pakistan authorities say the five young men used the social networking site Facebook and the Internet video site YouTube to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan. When they arrived in Pakistan, they allegedly took that effort to the street.
They were reported missing by their families more than a week ago after one of them left behind a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended.