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Has Pakistan's military been infiltrated by extremists?

By Imtiaz Gul

Foreign Policy, June 21, 2011

A few days after the May 2nd Abbottabad raid by the U.S. Navy SEALs, in which al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed, a member of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulemai Islam stunned other members of the Pakistani parliament by asking them to offer condolences for "the departed soul of bin Laden." In a house of 342 members, only two others joined Maulana Asmatullah Khan in the prayer. Maulana Attaurrehman, a former minister for tourism, was also among the three bin Laden sympathisers. (Attaurrheman's party, the JUI-F, was until recently part of the coalition government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, and has been a vocal supporter of the Afghan Taliban in the past.)

Once done with the prayers, Deputy Speaker Faisal Kareem Kundi admonished Asmatullah Khan for inviting condolence prayers without his permission. The matter died then and there.

But the incident underscored the sympathy or empathy, however limited, in Pakistan for bin Laden's ideology. It was also reflected in the hundreds of leaflets that were distributed in the Rawalpindi cantonment, where the mighty army is headquartered, on May 15. To the surprise of many, residents found provocative pamphlets at their doorsteps, dated May 7th, and signed by Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical outfit.

Pakistanis are well aware that their bureaucracy and judiciary are probably not immune to the radical, anti-western preachings of al Qaeda or like-minded transnational Islamist networks. Last month's attack on a naval base in Karachi, in which a handful of militants were able to destroy two P-2 Orion aircraft, bore all the hallmarks of an inside job.

And yet it still came as a shock to many Tuesday when the Pakistani military confirmed that Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior officer serving in the Army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, had been arrested for what a spokesman alleged were his "contacts with a proscribed organisation" -- Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Khan's arrest may be surprising, but most Pakistanis are unaware that the Army, particularly after five high-profile attacks -- including two on former president Pervez Musharraf in 2003 - long ago instituted mechanisms to keep an eye on suspect militant-minded officers. As a consequence several, suspected officers and low-ranking soldiers have either been transferred to insignificant positions or prematurely dismissed.

And this latest episode likely doesn't stop with Khan. A senior military official told me late Tuesday that more officers are probably being questioned for suspected links with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Khan's arrest suggests that the Army will have to intensify its hunt for officers in key positions for possible links with outlawed jihadi outfits such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Lashkar e-Taiba, and Jaish e-Mohammad.

The bad news of Khan's arrest is that it underlines the presence of a radical mindset within the armed forces. The good news is that it probably also reflects new thinking: greater attention to all those who might be influenced by organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Lashkar e-Taiba. Moreover, if the army can demonstrate it has gone after suspected militant officers successfully, it might be able to release some of the pressure it currently faces from the United States, which is demanding that Pakistan do more to fight Pakistan.

Interestingly, Hizb ut-Tahrir is not native to Pakistan. It emerged from the West -- cosmopolitan London, to be precise -- and only later spread to South Asia. Founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, an Islamic scholar and appeals-court judge from Palestine, the organization reportedly operates in about 40 countries from Africa to Asia to Europe to Russia. Although officially non-violent, its ideas are quite radical, especially since it advocates the immediate re-establishment of the Caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir is active today in Western Europe and the United States, but is banned in most Muslim countries.

The group believes that the Islamic ummah -- the global community of believers -- is a single unit of operations. It strongly rejects nationalism and its members are supposed to fight for the umma as a whole, not the state to which they belong. So far, the organization has avoided using militant or jihadi terminology and rejects the idea of launching any sort of armed struggle in Muslim countries.

Instead, Hizb ut-Tahrir envisages a three-stage program of action, modeled after the three stages experienced by the Prophet Muhammad en route to the establishment of the first Islamic state. These are: cultivation of individuals, interaction with the ummah, and the establishment of an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law.

Hizb ut-Tahrir does not favor the idea of seizing the state and then forcing society to accept Islam; rather it prefers to persuade society of the righteousness of its ideas. That, it is assumed, will lead inevitably to changes in the ruling regimes.

Since the onset of the global war on terror, Hizb ut-Tahrir has acted quickly to ramp up its operations in Pakistan through a very aggressive anti-American messaging campaign that also targeted former president Pervez Musharraf and his successor Asif Ali Zardari, whom the group aggressively paints as U.S. agentsAlmost daily, Hizb ut-Tahrir cadres send out SMS messages, emails, and faxed statements to newspapers, columnists, writers and television journalists and urges them to correct their path, shun friendship with the United States, and follow the Quran. Its narrative is virtually indistinguishable from that of other Islamist networks, such as al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In countries where the party is outlawed, Hizb ut-Tahrir's organization is said to be strongly centralized, though it is divided into networks of local committees and cells. The basic unit of the party is a cell of five members, the leader of which is called a mushrif. Only the mushrif knows the names of members of other cells.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir continues to operate openly in Britain, albeit amid a heated ongoing debate over whether it ought to be banned for its radical views. Following the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, for instance, the British government announced its intention to ban the group -- and then quickly retreated. According to the Independent then Prime Minister Tony Blair "shelved the ban after warnings from police, intelligence chiefs, and civil liberties groups that it is a non-violent group, and driving it underground could backfire"; other papers reported that the Home Office believed a legal ban would not stick.

Pakistani authorities face a similar dilemma, but they benefit from the country's weaker protections of freedom of speech and political action, and thus find it relatively easier to block activities such as rallies or press conferences. Because the United States had designated it a foreign terrorist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir keeps a low physical profile in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- though its relentless use of electronic media makes it seem almost omnipresent.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is unquestionably dangerous. Despite its claims to non-violence, its statements easily feed into the frustrations of common and ignorant Pakistanis, creating fertile ground for other, more radical groups to recruit and operate. If Brigadier General Khan was indeed a member, the world is better off with him behind bars.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk