December 13, 2009 | The Long War Journal: Threat Matrix

Was CAIR Responsible for the Zamzam Arrests?

Recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) helped to alert US authorities that Ramy Zamzam and four of his friends from Northern Virginia had gone missing by encouraging the families to bring their information to the FBI after the families told CAIR about the disappearances. (For my initial post on this case, click here.) This has caused some observers to argue that CAIR was responsible for the arrests in Pakistan. For example, Spencer Ackerman writes in the Washington Independent: “Still, a closer look at the new Pakistani arrests still show signs of the durability of American Muslim resistance to radicalization. The arrests wouldn't have happened, for instance, if a much-maligned American Muslim organization hadn't put the accused's worried families in touch with the government.” The “much-maligned American Muslim organization” to which Ackerman is referring is CAIR. To substantiate his claim that CAIR was responsible for the arrests in Pakistan, he quotes the following:

The men, who range in age from 19 to 25, went overseas without telling their families, who grew concerned after a family member called one of them on his cellphone and “the conversation ended abruptly,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The council got the family members in touch with the FBI last week, and the families played the 11-minute English video [that seemed like a martyrdom tape] for agents and Muslim leaders at a lawyer's office.

The causal chain Ackerman constructs is fairly clear: CAIR encouraged the families of the missing to contact the FBI, US authorities in turn alerted Pakistani officials about the situation, and the Pakistanis subsequently arrested the five men. But is this claim accurate?

The biggest problem with this construction of events is the assumption it makes in crediting US authorities for the arrest in Pakistan. I spoke with a US intelligence source last night who told me that the arrests were in fact related neither to information provided by the US nor to CAIR's actions. He stated that Pakistani authorities conducted the raid of the house where the men were staying independent of any information provided by the US, as the Pakistanis were trying to arrest Qari Saeed, who is affiliated with Jaish-e-Mohammed. As open source reporting shows, information obtained from the raid on the Americans' house did in fact lead to Saeed's arrest.

As I stated in a previous entry, I don't expect people to take the word of unnamed intelligence officials on faith, so let me provide a few reasons that I think he is correct. First, the arrest was made by local Pakistani police. If Pakistani authorities were conducting the raid at the behest of the US, they probably would have sent a more elite team. Second, initial reporting suggests that the Pakistanis did not know who they had when the arrest was made: this report from the Pakistani press, for example, claims only that a single American was arrested, naming the men as “2 Yemenis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Swedish and 1 US-born Pakistani.” A third and final reason that I credit my source's depiction of events is the American reaction. There was no FBI team in place when the arrests occurred, and instead one had to be sent over subsequently. If the U.S. knew the arrests were imminent, the team would have been in place beforehand.

For the record, I watched the entire CAIR press conference this past Wednesday, and even CAIR officials didn't claim to have caused the arrest: it seems to be Ackerman's own extrapolation. But though CAIR did the right thing in persuading the families to bring their information to the FBI, it is premature — to say the least — to credit them with causing the arrests in Pakistan.

Update, 12:01 p.m.: Spencer Ackerman graciously concedes that there is no evidence to suggest CAIR was responsible for the arrests, while maintaining the broader point of his earlier post, that “'the durability of American Muslim resistance to radicalization' endures, even despite the arrests.”