A senior officer serving at Pakistan’s army headquarters has been detained on suspicion of ties to a banned Islamist group that has called for the military to overthrow the country’s U.S.-allied government, the army spokesman said Tuesday.
The announcement could be an attempt by the Pakistani military to counter Western suspicions that it tolerates within its ranks soldiers who sympathize with militant groups such as the Taliban or al-Qaida. Those suspicions have spiked in the wake of last month’s U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in an army town not far from the Pakistani capital.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Brig. Ali Khan was detained recently for suspected links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization that wants to re-establish the caliphate, the administrative structure that once governed a large section of the Muslim world.
The army spokesman labeled the group a “proscribed militant organization.” But Hizb-ut-Tahrir insists it rejects violence, although observers say the group nonetheless promotes an intolerant mindset that can ultimately lead some followers to embrace militancy.
On what appears to be its Pakistan website, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which means “Party of Liberation,” calls for officers in the Pakistan army to oust the country’s government because of its alliance with the United States and to help establish an Islamic caliphate.
Abbas said the detention shows the army is determined to weed out bad actors, but also stressed that Khan was not linked to the Taliban, which is seen as much more of a threat by the West than Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
“We follow a zero percent tolerance for any breach of discipline or indulgence in any illegal activity,” Abbas told The Associated Press.
Khan’s wife insisted her husban was “totally innocent.”
“These allegations are totally rubbish,” she told the AP. She declined to give her first name because of cultural traditions among her Pashtun clan.
She said her husband went missing May 5, and she has been searching for information about his whereabouts since then. Authorities had assured her that he would soon return, she said.
She said her father-in-law served in the army as a junior commissioned officer, while her son and son-in-law were currently serving in the army.
“Our three generations have served the army, and none of our family members have any links with the militants,” she said.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Although it is banned in some countries, including Pakistan and parts of Central Asia, the group is active in Western countries such as the United States, where it finds protection under free speech and association laws.
Western officials have long worried about Islamist extremism within Pakistan’s security forces given their historical ties to militant groups that have fought in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir.
Many U.S. officials questioned how bin Laden could have hidden in the Pakistani army town of Abbottabad for up to five years without officials knowing, although they say they have not found any evidence that senior members of the government or military knew of his whereabouts.
U.S. attempts to rebuild the relationship with Pakistan have not gone well.
American officials say they have shared intelligence on four bomb-making factories in Pakistan’s tribal areas, but militants were intentionally or inadvertently tipped off before they were raided by Pakistani forces. Pakistani military officials have denied they tipped off the militants.
Analysts say the Pakistani army is better than the country’s police at rooting out extremists, but current and former military officers have participated in attacks in recent years.
Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who tried to bomb New York City’s Times Square last year, allegedly was in contact with a major in the Pakistani military. In 2009, Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked by 10 men in military uniforms reportedly led by a former army soldier. And the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, are alleged to have been carried out with the guidance of a Pakistani spy known only as “Major Iqbal.”
One constant fear is that extremists in the military could somehow infiltrate Pakistan’s nuclear program to steal materials for a terrorist weapon, but that program is governed by a multilayered security system that involves scrutiny of individuals’ backgrounds and beliefs.