WASHINGTON — US officials arrested three Pakistani Americans including two imams Saturday, charging them and three others with providing or seeking to provide “material support” to the Pakistani Taliban, the Justice Department said.
The defendants, five men and one woman, “are charged with conspiring to provide, and providing, material support to a conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap persons overseas, as well as conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, specifically, the Pakistani Taliban,” the department said in a statement.
Three of the defendants, including a 76-year-old imam of a Miami mosque, “are also charged with providing material support to the Pakistani Taliban,” namely the transfer of funds to finance the group, which Washington lists as a terror organization.
At least five of the defendants are members of the same family.
The two men arrested in Florida, identified as US nationals Hafiz Khan, the imam and family patriarch, and his son Izhar Khan, 24, also an imam at a separate Florida mosque, are due to appear in federal court in Miami on Monday.
A second son, Irfan Khan, was arrested in Los Angeles. Three others, including Khan’s daughter and her son, are at large in Pakistan.
Each face up to 15 years in prison per count.
The revelations come amid a period of great turmoil in ties between Islamabad and Washington in the aftermath of the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the recent double suicide bombing of a paramilitary police training center in northwest Pakistan that killed 89 people, in an attack it said was to avenge bin Laden’s death at the hands of US forces.
The Justice Department, clearly wary of the sensitivities of linking religious figures to terror groups, repeatedly made clear in its statement that the indictment does not charge or accuse the mosques of wrongdoing, and that the defendants have been charged based on their role in providing “material support to terrorism,” and not on their religious beliefs or teachings.
“Despite being an imam, or spiritual leader, Hafiz Khan was by no means a man of peace,” US Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in announcing the indictment.
“Instead, as today’s charges show, he acted with others to support terrorists to further acts of murder, kidnapping and maiming. But for law enforcement intervention, these defendants would have continued to transfer funds to Pakistan to finance the Pakistani Taliban, including its purchase of guns,” he said.
The five men and one woman were accused of using an elaborate system of bank accounts and wire transfers to send funding from the United States to Pakistan, in part to sustain militants and their families.
The indictment also alleges that the elder Khan supported the Taliban through a madrassa, or Islamic school, that he founded in the Swat region of Pakistan.
“Khan has allegedly… sent children from the madrassa to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan,” it said.
In July 2009, Khan and his son Irfan participated in a recorded conversation in which Khan “called for an attack on the Pakistani Assembly that would resemble the September 2008 suicide bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad,” according to the Justice Department.
John Gillies, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami office, said the arrests meant “terrorists have lost another funding source to use against innocent people and US interests.
“We will not allow this country to be used as a base for funding and recruiting terrorists,” he said.