12/13/2009, 8:05 p.m. EST
The Associated Press
(AP) ? KARACHI, Pakistan - Anas bin Saleem, a 12-year-old American, spends seven hours a day sitting cross-legged on the floor memorizing the Quran.
He is among thousands of foreigners who have flocked to conservative Islamic schools in Pakistan, despite a government ban, The Associated Press has found through interviews with officials, documents, visits to the schools and encounters with dozens of students.
Pakistani and foreign governments consider the international students a potential security threat. The students could export extremism back to their own countries or stay and fight in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, where the United States is battling a resurgent Taliban eight years after the U.S.-led invasion. Pakistan stopped granting student visas in 2005, but many students still arrive on travel visas and never leave when they expire.
"We are concerned, but what can we do?" said an official from one Southeast Asian embassy in Pakistan who asked for anonymity because he did not want to upset his hosts. "We can't stop people from traveling. ... It is their constitutional right."
Officials are concerned in general about foreigners coming to Pakistan for training in militancy. Most recently, five young American Muslims were arrested after meeting with representatives of an al-Qaida linked group and asking for training, a Pakistani law enforcement official said Thursday.
And in a separate case, the U.S. accuses another American, David Coleman Headley, of attending militant training camps in Pakistan and conspiring with members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba to conduct surveillance on potential targets in the Indian city of Mumbai before the deadly terror attacks there in November 2008.
In Anas' school, Jamia Binoria, several hundred students from 29 countries live alongside 5,000 Pakistani pupils, teachers said. Binoria is one of the largest schools in the country and one of at least four schools in Karachi with foreign students on its books.
Anas says he is not taught militant Islam at Binoria, but clerics firmly endorse on the school Web site suicide bombing and jihad against Western troops in Afghanistan. Anas admits he is fed up with anti-American barbs from teachers and pupils.
"I get it like every second," says Anas, who left Louisiana last year with his Pakistani-born mother, barely spoke the national language when he arrived in Pakistan and misses Hannah Montana. "I'm like 'shut up' and don't talk like that."
Only a handful of the foreign students are Westerners; most are Asians and Africans in the late teens or early 20s. Many come to Pakistan for a cheap Islamic education, albeit a conservative one, part of a tradition of Muslims traveling to gain knowledge that goes back centuries.
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