RELIGIOUS LEARNING IN PAKISTAN
Antenna up on Islamic schools
U.S. officials wary of possible al-Qaida recruiting
WASHINGTON â€” It’s a nightmare scenario that awakens some U.S. intelligence officials at night: Pakistani-American youths will enter the country to carry out terrorist attacks after spending time at radical religious schools and al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan.
Officials say it hasn’t happened, and some experts warn against labeling all young Americans who study in Pakistan as potential terrorists.
* Up to 700 American born Pakistani boys are being turned into headbangers in these madrassahs…
But the high-profile return home of two U.S.-born Pakistani-American teenagers last week who spent four years at a radical Islamic madrassa in Karachi has focused fresh attention on the potential threat, even though the brothers have no known ties to terrorism.
Their saga stirred concern among some members of Texas’ congressional delegation, prompting a call for congressional hearings and a request by 10 Republican members of the House for Pakistan to deport the estimated 700 Americans studying at the madrassas.
“From al-Qaida’s standpoint, Pakistanis with American nationality are very attractive targets to recruit,” says Bruce Riedel, a former career intelligence officer whose assignments included responsibility for South Asia. “They would have American passports that mean when they get to Dulles International Airport (outside Washington, D.C.) or George Bush International Airport (in Houston), they just sail right through.”
Draws attention of FBI
Robert Heibel, a former FBI deputy director of counterterrorism, says the “antennae of the FBI have gone up” in response to Pakistani-Americans returning from training at religious schools in Pakistan where they might be exposed to al-Qaida recruiters.
“The FBI would be very interested in all of these people when they return,” Heibel said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the bureau do some mass interviews.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said al-Qaida and other extremist groups try to recruit “non-traditional (Muslims), who look more Western.”
He added, “It is going on.”
The comments followed the return of the two teenage Pakistani-American brothers to Atlanta on Thursday, six days after a personal appeal to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, during a congressional delegation visit to Islamabad.
The brothers’ return ended a long, complicated family saga.
It began in 2004 when Fazal Kahn, a taxi driver from Atlanta, sent two of his six children to Pakistan without their consent to learn the faith, the Urdu language and the customs of his native land.
“I want my children to see the world,” Kahn said, “get more education so they can get better work than me.”
His sons â€” Noor Elahi Kahn, 17, and Mahboob Elahi Kahn, 16 â€” had been undergoing demanding religious training at the sprawling Jamia Binoria madrassa in Karachi ever since.
The institution, one of an estimated 20,000 Islamic religious schools in Pakistan, served as a setting for the partnership forged between the Taliban and al-Qaida and as a backdrop for an address by Osama bin Laden on the importance of Muslim holy war shortly before al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the U.S.
Filmmaker gets involved
The brothers first appealed to a visiting Pakistani-American documentary filmmaker, Imran Raza, in 2005 to try to win their freedom, said Ericka Pertierra, co-producer of the documentary entitledÂ Karachi Kids: Transforming U.S. Boys through Radical Islam.
Raza, a California-based filmmaker, journeyed to Capitol Hill to generate interest in the boys’ plight. One of the members of Congress he contacted was McCaul, a former counterterrorism official with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“It is imperative that members of Congress and the State Department undertake an accounting of just how many Americans are in the other 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan,” Raza said.
Some 78 Americans, he said, studied at the boys’ madrassa.
McCaul said U.S. intelligence officials remained concerned that American citizens at madrassas in Pakistan might be exposed to al-Qaida recruiters.
Lessons from London
The phenomenon, first brought to light with the battlefield arrest in Afghanistan of American Taliban John Walker Lindh in late 2001, has been drawing greater scrutiny since British-born Pakistanis, trained at madrassas in Pakistan, took part in London’s transit system bombings that killed 52 commuters in 2005.
Then, in 2006, other British-born Pakistanis were linked to an unsuccessful plot to blow up 10 passenger jets flying from Europe to the United States.
McCaul, dubbing Pakistan’s radical Islamic madrassas “jihadist seminaries,” proposed a resolution in Congress calling on the State Department to work with Pakistan to “immediately identify and return to the United States all American children currently being educated at madrassas in Pakistan.”
“These madrassas are creating a new breed of terrorist,” McCaul wrote colleagues, “American citizens or citizens of countries who have open travel policies with America that can enter our country, work in our businesses, live next door, and teach our children with no questions asked; similar to the London bombers.”
Nine of McCaul’s Republican colleagues in the House from eight states joined him in sponsoring the measure.
McCaul also asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee to convene hearings on the potential threat. The committee chairmen have yet to respond.
“I will continue with this investigation to see how many more Americans are over there, how many have come back and where they are now,” McCaul said.
Not all experts see the same level of threat posed by madrassa-educated American Muslims.
C. Christine Fair, an expert on madrassas and Pakistan with the RAND Corp., who met the Kahn brothers in Karachi, called a potential crackdown on Americans attending Islamic religious schools “madrassa hysteria.”
The FBI and other U.S. domestic security agencies ought to target their monitoring on individuals with clear ties to terrorist groups rather than trying to scrutinize every Pakistani-American who spends time at an Islamic religious school. Many faiths, Fair said, send aspiring religious leaders to study abroad.
“We need to use a scalpel rather than a chain saw to deal with the potential threat that we face,” Fair said.
The boys’ father, a former construction worker in Pakistan who said he sought asylum in the United States 18 years ago, said he sent his sons to Pakistan for innocent reasons.
“Not every madrassa is bad,” Kahn said in a telephone interview. “There are good people and bad people at any school in America, too.”