Pakistan Holds More Army Officers in Probe of Militants’ Role

Pakistan’s army says it has detained four majors as well as a brigadier in an investigation of how widely an Islamic militant group may have placed supporters within the country’s nuclear-armed military.

The army is holding the officers in its probe of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said in an exchange of text messages yesterday. Abbas earlier confirmed the arrest of Brigadier Ali Khan for alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that seeks to overthrow governments of Muslim states and that is banned in Pakistan.

The rare announcement of disciplinary actions against mid-ranking and senior officers for such ties follows statements by U.S. officials that Pakistan’s armed forces have connections to militant organizations. Khan was assigned to Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Abbas said June 21.

Khan’s arrest “means that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been having more success than we realized in its strategy of penetrating the government structures,” said Arif Jamal, an independent Pakistani analyst and author on Islamic movements. “Hizb ut-Tahrir works by recruiting within the institutions of the state -- the army, bureaucracy, politicians -- to eventually overthrow it from within.”

Khan is the highest-ranking military official known to have been detained for alleged involvement in militant activities since Pakistan backed the U.S. effort to dismantle al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. While his arrest underscores the army has been infiltrated, “this Islamist penetration has not moved beyond the individual level and the Pakistani military as an institution remains sound,” U.S. political risk assessment firm Stratfor said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Party of Liberation’

Abbas declined to comment June 21 on a report by the BBC Urdu Service that Khan had been detained since disappearing on May 6, or to discuss other details of the investigation. An army colonel and two civilians also have been arrested as part of Pakistan’s move against Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor reported, citing sources it did not name.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, was founded in 1952 to establish an Islamic caliphate, or theocracy, to rule the world’s 60-plus largely Muslim nations. The party has adherents from Central Asia to Western Europe, and operates legally in the U.K and U.S. Germany banned the group in 2003, saying it calls for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews. Russia outlawed it as a terrorist organization in 2006.

The group “does not undertake any physical actions nor any violent acts,” the organization’s website says.

Pakistan Focus

“Hizb ut-Tahrir does not seem to have yet come close” to gaining the influence necessary to overthrow any Muslim state, Jamal said. The group focuses heavily on Pakistan, he said, with a separate website dedicated to its campaign in the country.

Noting that Pakistan holds “the world’s seventh-largest army, nuclear capability, sixth-largest population in the world,” and agricultural and mineral resources, the group’s Manifesto for Pakistan describes the country as “the starting point” for its goal of a caliphate stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia. “The current system in Pakistan can never succeed because it collides with the very belief of the Muslims,” the manifesto says.

Concerns over possible infiltration of Pakistan’s army, one of the world’s 10 largest with 600,000 members on active duty, revived after the May 2 killing by U.S. commandos of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town and the May 15 raid on a naval air station by guerrillas who destroyed high-tech surveillance aircraft.

Covert Support

Beginning in the weeks before the attack on bin Laden’s compound 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Islamabad, U.S. officials have spoken openly about the Pakistani military’s backing for violent Islamic militant groups.

Pakistani and American analysts, including Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani and author Ahmed Rashid have said that the army’s decades-old policy has been to covertly support selected guerrilla groups as proxy forces in neighboring Afghanistan and the disputed region of Kashmir.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said April 20 that Pakistan’s main military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, still “has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network,” a Taliban faction led by Jalaluddin Haqqani that a recent Defense Department report called “the most significant threat” to U.S. forces fighting in eastern Afghanistan.

The U.S. didn’t disclose the bin Laden raid to Pakistan out of concern some Pakistani officials would have warned him, aggravating bilateral tensions.

Bhutto Plot

The New York Times this month reported that Pakistan arrested an army major for aiding the CIA search for bin Laden. Pakistan’s army denied the report.

U.S. lawmakers have questioned Pakistan’s commitment to fighting militants and have said further aid should be tied to actions against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan’s army announced in 2004 the conviction of two low-ranking soldiers for joining an Islamic militant attempt to assassinate the country’s military ruler at the time, General Pervez Musharraf. The last arrest of officers at Khan’s rank came in 1995, when a brigadier and other army men were accused of plotting to overthrow then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

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