Militant Sympathies in Pakistani Army's Senior Ranks

June 22, 2011

Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani presiding over the 139th Corps Commanders’ Conference held at General Headquarters, Rawalpindi on June 9, 2011 (Source: Inter-Services Public Relations).

On Tuesday, Major General Athar Abbas, the head of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), confirmed that the Pakistani army arrested Brigadier General Ali Khan for links to the banned extremist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and for possibly “plotting an attack on a military target.”[1] The arrest is significant as it highlights the unprecedented level of extremist infiltration into the Pakistani army. It is also unusual that the Pakistani military has chosen to deal with such a sensitive case in a fairly public manner.

That the officer in question, Brigadier Ali Khan, was arrested for links to an extremist organization is alarming given his background as much as his rank. Brig. Khan is a decorated military officer with a “brilliant” service record and comes from a family with “three generations of military service.”[2] Brig. Khan was assigned to the Pakistani military’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi where he was posted in the Regulation Directorate, a human resources branch of the army.[3]

Brig. Khan has reportedly been in custody since May 6, just four days after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.[4] According to media reports, Brig. Khan had been under surveillance for some time for his links to HuT.[5] The Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani had reportedly asked to be personally briefed on the case and after being “satisfied by the weight of the ‘evidence,’ ordered the arrest himself.”[6] Efforts are also reportedly underway to track down other members of HuT with whom Brig. Khan may have had contact, and four more majors are currently being investigated.[7]

HuT is an Islamic extremist organization that rejects democracy and calls for the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate.[8] Banned in Pakistan, it operates openly in many countries across the world, including the U.S. and U.K. While the group publicly disavows violence and claims to be distinct from al Qaeda, it operates “in a gray area where global jihadi sympathies lurk.”[9] Indeed, while it does not make explicit calls for violence, it “promotes an intolerant mindset” that could encourage its adherents to take up militancy.[10] It frequently urges its followers in the military to revolt against their superiors and the Pakistani state.[11] HuT has had particular success over the years in infiltrating the military due to its strategy of recruiting people from the “urban, educated and professional segments of society.”[12] Just last year, two officers were court-martialled for having links to HuT.[13]

News of the arrest comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Pakistani military. Public perception of the army and morale within the military have hit historic lows following a series of embarrassing incidents, including the discovery of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, the military’s apparent inability to stop the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, a siege on a military base in Karachi by Taliban commandos, the publicized extrajudicial killing of an unarmed man by paramilitary forces in Karachi, and the torture and murder of a popular journalist widely attributed to the ISI.[14] This latest issue is only likely to add to the very full plate of Gen. Kayani who, facing unprecedented levels of pressure from inside and outside the army, is reportedly fighting to keep his job.[15]

The arrest of so high-ranking an officer for links to militant groups and for potentially plotting attacks against a military target is alarming. Militant infiltration in the lower ranks of the Pakistani army has long been a problem, but this is the first publicized case of radicalization at such a senior level; indeed, Brig. Khan is the most senior officer arrested in nearly a decade.[16] Fears of extremist infiltration and sympathies in the military have been bolstered, especially in the wake of the bin Laden raid, the Karachi base siege, and the alleged leaking to militants by sources in the Pakistani military of classified information provided by the U.S.[17] Strong suspicions persist that bin Laden was receiving support at some level from rogue officers in the Pakistani military; the Taliban militants who besieged PNS Mehran are believed to have had inside help in planning their attack.[18] Similar suspicions were held following an attack on GHQ in 2009. According to a report in early June, the navy had detained and was questioning a number of officers suspected of links to al Qaeda.[19] A leaked cable from 2006 reports a Pakistani air force commander complaining of airmen committing acts of sabotage against jets being used against Taliban and al Qaeda militants in the northwest.[20] Some military analysts see Brig. Khan’s arrest as the latest indication that the Pakistan Army is slowly coming around to the danger posed by this “inside threat,” and that this arrest would force the army to reexamine its vetting process, especially for higher ranked officers.[21] The overriding fear is that of radicalized officers colluding to put a nuclear weapon into the hands of Islamist terrorists.

It is unclear if Brig. Khan’s arrest marks the beginning of a genuine crackdown on radicalism and militant links in the military. There are concerns that Brig. Khan’s arrest may simply be an attempt to deflect U.S. pressure and criticism that the Pakistani military refuses to break its ties with militant Islamist organizations.[22] Indeed, it is unusual that the military is now publicizing an arrest made over a month ago of so senior an officer for having links to extremists. The Pakistani military normally tries to deal with such issues internally and out of public scrutiny.[23] There does not appear to be any shift so far in the military’s stance towards the Haqqani Network or Lashkar-e-Taiba, two dangerous trans-national terrorist organizations based in Pakistan that the Pakistani military has taken no significant action against.

In the end it seems as if the army continues to make distinctions between official policies supporting certain radical groups that serve its purpose, and the internal, unchecked radicalization of its own personnel. It remains relatively intolerant of the latter, especially where that radicalization could lead to soldiers turning against the army and the state. What it does not seem to grasp is that this policy dichotomy is only likely to increase the rot on the inside. Until the army is prepared to cut its links and crack down upon the full menu of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, it will continue to see its personnel radicalized by association. The longer it takes to come to this realization, the more militant sympathizers it will likely have to deal with within its ranks, and the more difficult it will become over time to reverse the radicalization backslide. The future of the Pakistani military and indeed the state depends on the military seeing this incident as a systematic problem and taking action before it is too late. Brig. Khan should be the first of many steps in that direction.



[1] Maj. Gen. Abbas said that an investigation was ongoing and that “strict disciplinary action” would be taken. “We follow [a] zero tolerance policy of such activities within the military therefore prompt action was taken on detection,” he said.
Kamran Yousef, “Army confirms brigadier’s arrest for extremist ties,” Express Tribune, June 22, 2011. Available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/193407/brigadier-detained-for-having-links-to-banned-organisation-report/
Jennie Matthew, “Pakistani officer arrested over links with banned group,” AFP, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gCeRZDSbyGw6nC4bhrsCYTm19xRQ?docId=CNG.a41e69b9fe806087345e0672bfad367a.4e1
Robert Mackey, “Pakistan Detains Senior Army Officer over Suspected Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/senior-pakistani-general-detained-over-militant-ties/?hp
[2] Brig. Khan’s father was a junior commissioned officer in the army, and his son and son-in-law are both captains. Brig. Khan’s brother is currently a serving colonel in an “intelligence agency,” likely a veiled reference to the Pakistani military’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
“Pakistan army office held for ‘links with extremists,’” BBC, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13853942
[3] Prior to his time at GHQ, Brig. Khan served as a commander in Azad Kashmir and even completed a military training course in the United States several years ago. He had reportedly previously been denied a promotion due to his Islamist leanings and was set to retire soon.
Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Brigadier held for links with extremists,” Dawn, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.dawn.com/2011/06/22/brigadier-held-for-links-with-extremists.html
[4] Jennie Matthew, “Pakistani officer arrested over links with banned group,” AFP, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gCeRZDSbyGw6nC4bhrsCYTm19xRQ?docId=CNG.a41e69b9fe806087345e0672bfad367a.4e1
[5] “Senior officer detained for links with Islamists,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 21, 2011. Available at Nexis.com
[6] “Pakistan army office held for ‘links with extremists,’” BBC, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13853942
[7] Pakistan probes officers over banned group links,” AFP, June 22, 2011. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110622/wl_sthasia_afp/pakistanunrestmilitary
[8] Munir Ahmed, “Pakistan army asks 4 officers about extremist ties,” AP, June 22, 2011. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110621/ap_on_re_as/as_pakistan
[9] Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
[10] Munir Ahmed, “Pakistan army officer held on extremism suspicions,” AP, June 21, 2011. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110621/ap_on_re_as/as_pakistan
[11] In a 2010 letter, HuT called for soldiers to overthrow the government and military leadership for their alliances with the United States. Following the raid that killed bin Laden on May 2, HuT members “clandestinely dropped pamphlets in military cantonments” calling on military officers to “establish an Islamic caliphate.”
Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
Robert Mackey, “Pakistan Detains Senior Army Officer Over Suspected Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/senior-pakistani-general-detained-over-militant-ties/?hp
[12] Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
[13] “Pakistan army office held for ‘links with extremists,’” BBC, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13853942
[14] Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Chief of Army Fights to Keep His Job,” New York Times, June 15, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/world/asia/16pakistan.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all
“In wake of bin Laden raid, Pakistani chief works on military pride, shoring up own position,” AP, June 19, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/in-wake-of-bin-laden-raid-pakistani-chief-works-on-military-pride-shoring-up-own-position/2011/06/19/AGC8EebH_story.html?wprss=rss_world
[15] Gen. Kayani is reportedly facing a strong backlash from a number of his corps commanders and junior officers who are seething at the embarrassment of the bin Laden raid and Pakistan’s perceived closeness to the U.S.; they view Gen. Kayani as the main force behind the relationship.
Jane Perlez, “Pakistan’s Chief of Army Fights to Keep His Job,” New York Times, June 15, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/world/asia/16pakistan.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all
“In wake of bin Laden raid, Pakistani chief works on military pride, shoring up own position,” AP, June 19, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/in-wake-of-bin-laden-raid-pakistani-chief-works-on-military-pride-shoring-up-own-position/2011/06/19/AGC8EebH_story.html?wprss=rss_world
[16] Kamran Haider, “Pakistan arrests brigadier over Islamist ties,” Reuters, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/21/us-pakistan-brigadier-idUSTRE75K3SM20110621
[17] Kimberly Dozier, “AP sources: Pakistanis tip off militants again,” June 19, 2011. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_us_pakistan
[18] “Inside help suspected in PNS Mehran base attack,” The News, May 27, 2011. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=6290&Cat=13
[19] “Senior officer detained for links with Islamists,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 21, 2011. Available at Nexis.com 2011
[20] “WikiLeaks: Pakistani airmen sabotaging F-16s,” NDTV, May 20, 2011. Available at http://www.ndtv.com/article/world/wikileaks-pakistani-airmen-sabotaging-f-16s-107093
[21] Salman Masood, “Pakistan Detains Officer on Suspicion of Militant Ties,” New York Times, June 21, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/world/asia/22pakistan.html?pagewanted=1
[22] Munir Ahmed, “Pakistan army asks 4 officers about extremist ties,” AP, June 22, 2011. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110621/ap_on_re_as/as_pakistan