Barely two weeks after the US raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, hundreds of leaflets were distributed in the Rawalpindi cantonment, where the army has its headquarters, by operatives of Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamist group which is agitating for a Muslim caliphate:
“Oh sincere and honest army officers! Have you forgotten the path that you had taken to defend the Muslims living here against infidels? Who will you join on the Day of Reckoning – true followers of Allah and Muhammad (PBUH), or the traitor rulers and their foreign benefactors? Since it is an open secret that the real power in Pakistan rests with the military, it is, therefore, incumbent upon it to step forward, join the Hizbut Tehrir, and make a comprehensive plan to rid the country of traitors and agents of infidels, and the create conditions for it to seize power and strive for the liberation and unification of occupied Muslim territories.” (Dated 7th May)
The hundreds of leaflets suspected Hizbut Tahrir activists distributed on May 15 in the Rawalpindi cantonment said the army had sold out to the United States and urged “honest officers” to rise against this military.
And then on June 21st, the Pakistani military confirmed that a senior officer serving at the army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Brig Ali Khan, had been arrested for “contacts with a proscribed organisation” ie Hizbut Tahrir. His arrest had actually taken place on May 6.
Hizbut Tahrir, (The Party of Liberation), is a radical political group dedicated to re-establishing an Islamic Caliphate across the Muslim world. Active in Britain, it is banned in many Muslim countries for its calls to overthrow governments. The Pakistani government had slapped a ban on the outfit in 2004, but the Multan seat of the Lahore High Court overruled the proscription orders in 2005, following the plea by Hizbut Tahrir that it is non-violent.
Paradoxically, the HT still figures on the list of 22 banned organisations that the Punjab government had issued in 2008. This also partially explains the lack of coordination, and the state of confusion that accompanies governance at the central and provincial levels.
This was not the arrest of some maverick outsider. Brigadier Khan was seen as an upstanding officer. He had been on a routine posting at the General Headquarters (GHQ) with the Regulation Directorate until his arrest. The brigadier’s father, a retired junior commissioned officer, had served in the Baloch Regiment, from where army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani also started his career. Several serving lieutenant generals had been coursemates of the detained brigadier, who had won a gold medal at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul in Abbottabad, less than a mile from where bin Laden was eventually found.
The army chief had personally ordered the arrest of Khan, the highest-ranking serving army officer arrested in a decade. In the mid 1990s, a group of officers led by a Maj Gen Zaheerul Islam Abbasi and Brig Mustansar Billa had been busted as they were planning to stage a coup against prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
aj Gen Athar Abbas disclosed in an interview that four majors of Pakistan Army were also under investigation on similar charges but dismissed the perception that a large number of Pakistan Army personnel were in any way associated with extremists or banned organisations. He said in a large institution like the army, the presence of such elements could not be ruled out.
Khan’s family and his counsel, however, had a different story to tell; within hours of his detention on May 6, military officers had told the family he had been held back to answer some questions and would return soon.
Brig Khan had raised questions in a meeting of top generals of the Pakistan Army about the Abbottabad raid and his concerns could be the cause of his arrest, said Inamullah, his legal counsel. Inamullah is a retired colonel and began practicing after his career with the army ended.
Family sources said Khan had asked the military leaders how the American troops were able to penetrate deep into the Pakistani territory to take out bin Laden. He had also been critical of Pakistan’s unquestioned cooperation with the United States.
Later, Brig Khan began writing letters to army generals, some of who he had served alongside before they rose to prominence, with suggestions on how to become “self reliant” and “to purge the army of the American influence”.
He told senior officers such as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that Pakistan’s “unconditional” support to the Americans was causing resentment in the lower ranks of the army. The “unlimited cooperation with the US” seemed to have become an obsession, his mission in life because he believed that that growing American involvement in Pakistan “was destroying the spirit and the morale within the armed forces”, according to his wife.
On May 5, three days after the raid on Osama’s compound, he was invited to a meeting by his former student and now his boss, Lt General Javed Iqbal at the army headquarters. Khan managed to persuade some of his fellow officers to agree with him. He was arrested the next day.
Hizbut Tahrir is ideologically aligned with a number of terrorist groups but it has the ability to appeal to university students, scientists and engineers, and military officers. And while the military thinks the threat is not extraordinary, it does exist in an environment where it has the ability to grow. It remains a big challenge for the General Headquarters to prevent it from becoming a contagion.