Friday, June 24, 2011

Islamists break Pakistan's military ranks

Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - The arrest of Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior officer of the Pakistan army, for his alleged ties to Hizbul Tehrir (HuT), a banned Islamic militant group believed to be working in tandem with al-Qaeda under the garb of pan-Islamism, has brought into the open conflicting Islamists and reformists ideologies that have split the military's rank and file for a decade. Pakistani armed forces spokesman Major General Athar Abbas confirmed Khan has been arrested due to his links to the HuT and was being interrogated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Military Intelligence. The brigadier, who had been posted at the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the army in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, was taken into custody on May 6, hardly three days

after the May 2 killing of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a US military raid in Abbottabad.

The military spokesman was quick to dispel any impression that Khan, who was in charge of drafting army regulations, was linked with the investigations into the Abbottabad episode. "The detention shows that the Pakistan army is determined to weed out bad actors,'' Major General Athar Abbas said. ''We follow zero tolerance policy of such activities in the military and that's why prompt action was taken on detection. We don't allow any other cult in the military other than the military cult. We have zero-tolerance policy for any extremist ideology in the army."

The arrest of the brigadier over a suspected militant connection has surprised his colleagues since he comes from a family with three generations in military service, besides having a brilliant service record. His father was a junior commissioned officer, while his younger brother is a colonel in a Pakistani intelligence agency. His son and son-in-law are both army captains.

Khan's wife, Anjum, rejected the allegations. "Every general knows Brigadier Ali Khan. Even army chief General [Ashfaq Pervez] Kiani knows him," she told a foreign news agency on June 22. "We can never think of betraying the army or our country. He is an intellectual, honest, patriotic and ideological person. It has become a fashion in Pakistan that whosoever offers prayers and practices religion is dubbed as Taliban and militant."

She said her husband went missing on May 5, and she has been searching for information about his whereabouts since. Authorities had assured her that he would soon return, she said. "Our three generations have served the army and none of our family members have had any links with the militants," she insisted.

Military circles said clearance for Khan's arrest came after Kiani was shown convincing evidence of the brigadier's apparent militant links. The army chief was disturbed to learn of infiltration by HuT at such a senior level. Khan, who had received training in the United States and was set to retire soon, had previously been denied promotion because of his extremist leanings. A defense source claimed that a lieutenant-colonel who worked under Khan had also been detained.

Before his GHQ posting, the brigadier served as a commander in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir. The source added that efforts were being made to arrest other members of the group who were in contact with him.

News of brigadier's arrest was made public almost a week after a June 15 report in The New York Times that Pakistan's top military spy agency had arrested five Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) informants, including a major who fed information to the American spy agency before the Abbottabad raid in which Bin Laden was killed.

Major General Athar Abbas confirmed that the army had made several detentions in connection with the US raid and other unspecified incidents under ''a purge'', but denied holding any military officer. "These arrests are part of ongoing cleansing process and are not related to any single incident," the military spokesman said, without clarifying what he meant by "cleansing process" and whether it was about a covert CIA network in the country.

It soon transpired that a doctor in the Pakistan army's medical corps, Major Amir Aziz, had been picked up by the agencies from his Abbottabad house, just a couple of hundred meters from the compound where the Americans killed Bin Laden. However, it is not yet clear if the arrests of Khan and Aziz were part of a larger "cleansing process" in the military or an isolated event. Pakistan's armed forces have come under scathing international criticism for a seemingly lax approach to elements who sympathize with militant organizations.

Brigadier Khan was not the first high-ranking officer of the Pakistan army to be arrested for alleged links with HuT, which represents a new breed of Islamic fundamentalists who study at top British and American educational institutions yet abhor Western values and advocate the removal of the pro-US Pakistan government and the formation of a pan-Islamic state.

Military intelligence apprehended Colonel Shahid Bashir, then commanding officer of the Shamsi air force base in Balochistan province, on May 4, 2009, for keeping links with HuT. The colonel was arrested along with a retired fighter pilot-turned lawyer, Squadron Leader Nadeem Ahmad Shah, and Awais Ali Khan, a US-educated mechanical engineer who held a Green Card giving him the right to live in the United States.

On May 13, 2009, Federal Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan informed parliament that the army had detained a serving colonel along with a Rawalpindi-based lawyer on espionage charges.

Colonel Bashir was subsequently accused of leaking secrets pertaining to the Shamsi air force base, which the CIA was using to launch drone attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. He was eventually court-martialed on charges of spying and provoking armed forces personnel to get involved in terrorist acts.

The court martial was conducted by a military court, headed by a brigadier under Section 31(d) of the Army Act. Under the act, the accused could be sentenced to death if proven guilty. The accused had pleaded not guilty and challenged the jurisdiction of the military court. Their fate is unknown.

The arrest of Khan over suspected jihadi links only confirms that the tug-of-war between Islamists and reformists in the army has reached a boiling point as the Islamic extremists and their ideological partners in the garrison act in unison to advance their anti-US and anti-state agenda.

The development has set alarm bells ringing among the military leadership, which already faces sharp criticism for the May 2 American raid in Abbottabad and subsequent terrorist attacks targeting highly sensitive military installations in various parts of the country - especially the naval base in the port city of Karachi. Investigations have revealed that the May 22 assault on the high-guarded Mehran naval base could not have been possible without inside help.

Investigators believe the naval base attackers achieved their prime aim, the destruction of two PC3 Orion aircraft, worth over US$6 billion, in a clear bid to impair Pakistan's military prowess and demoralize its rank and file. The most worrying aspect of the assault was that the militants appeared to have been privy to classified information about the Mehran base that only an insider could have provided.
In Lahore on May 30, hardly a week after the naval base attack, Pakistani military authorities arrested a former navy commando, Kamran Ahmed, and his younger brother Zaman Ahmed, for aiding the attackers. Kamran, who joined the navy in 1993 and was trained as a Special Services Group commando, was detained on charges of providing the attackers with maps of the base.

He served at the Iqbal Naval base in Karachi until 1997 and was later transferred to the Mehran naval base, where an assault on a senior officer led to a court martial and his discharge from service in 2003. The military court had further declared Kamran unfit for the job because of his extremist views.

Kamran is not the only navy officer to have been arrested over links with jihadis. Another Pakistani marine commando from the

Waziristan tribal region, who was posted at Mehran, was arrested in January 201. During interrogation, he disclosed that al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants had plans to target key naval installations, including oil depots and power grid stations.

Interestingly, the arrested commando was a member of the Mehsud tribe from the FATA of Waziristan. It has produced many Taliban leaders, like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban - TTP) founder commander Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain Mehsud and the incumbent TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud. The banned organization has already claimed responsibility for the naval base attack as vengeance for the death of Bin Laden.

The specter of Islamist infiltration has haunted the armed forces for decades. Creeping conservatism in the armed forces is a legacy of the country's third military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, under whose command state policies were centered on Islam, religious sermons by fanatic mullahs in military units were encouraged, and even members of the Muslim missionary group Tableeghi Jamaat were allowed to preach in garrisons at will.

This drift was first revealed during Benazir Bhutto's second tenure as prime minister in 1995, when a group of senior army officers led by a serving major general was busted while planning to topple the federal government in Islamabad and to eliminate the top military leadership, with the prime aim of enforcing Islamic sharia in the country.

The arrests of dozens of commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Pakistan army and the air force in connection with the December 2003 twin-assassination attempts targeting General Pervez Musharraf's presidential cavalcade in Rawalpindi did not come as a great surprise to many.

Subsequent investigations revealed that al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants had penetrated army and air force units to preach their brand of jihad and recruit personnel to assassinate none other than their own army chief. The probes took the military investigators to Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and the FATA, to question about 150 suspects including four-dozen commissioned and non-commissioned personnel in both services.
The investigators concluded that the attempts on Musharraf's cavalcade (on December 14 and December 25, 2003) were an exclusive job of over a dozen brainwashed air force technicians who lived nearby in a Pakistan Air Force residential facility. They were directed, motivated and armed by a Pakistani contact person in al-Qaeda.

The investigation showed that Air Intelligence, the air force intelligence wing, had no wind that its personnel - about two dozen at the Chaklala air base - had been attending meetings with religious extremists and making preparations at the base to bomb the presidential motorcade.

The investigation also led to the arrest of civilian religious extremists, including three clerics involved in the indoctrination of the technicians and in the planning of the attacks. A small group of religious extremists who had stored and supplied the C4 plastic explosives to the technicians and suicide bombers was also arrested.

The investigation team, headed by General Kiani, who was a lieutenant-general at that time, was stunned to learn that the air force technicians spent two days making several trips beneath the Lai Bridge to strap large quantities of the C4 explosives to pillars of the bridge, all without drawing the attention of either the police or military intelligence, which were supposed to keep an eye on the presidential route.

Based on these findings, Musharraf ordered the purging of known Islamists from superior ranks of the armed forces. In January 2005, almost a year later, after court martial proceedings, a military court headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Sultan Noor Ali Khan of 96 Medium Air Defense Regiment, sentenced three air force officers to terms ranging from two to nine years for alleged links with the Jaish-e-Mohammad, led by Maulana Masood Azhar. Nauman Khattak, 18, and Saeed Alam, 19, were sentenced to two years in prison, while the third airman, Munir Ahmed, was given a nine-year sentence.

Three months later, in March 2005, the court handed down a death sentence (in absentia) to another servicemen accused in the assassination conspiracy, including Naik Arshad Mahmood of the army's Special Services Group and Havaldar Mohammad Younis of the 98 Air Defense Regiment, who was awarded 10 years hard labor, and Naik Zafar Iqbal Dogar, the special services soldier who abandoned the mission halfway and became a key state witness.

Six months later, on September 18, yet another military trial court sentenced three other officers: Major Adil Qudoos was given 10 years in prison, Colonel Abdul Ghaffar got three years and Colonel Khalid Abbasi six months. Major Attaullah, Major Faraz and Captain Zafar were dismissed from service.

In an unprecedented move clearly intended to send a stark message to the Islamists in uniform, the Pakistan army executed the soldier accused of pressing the remote control button for the device that had targeted Musharraf on December 14, 2003. Abdul Islam Siddiqui was executed on August 20, 2005 after a closed-door Field General Court Martial headed by a major general found him guilty as charged.

Other charges against the 35-year-old Siddiqui included abetting a mutiny against the army chief and attempting to persuade "a person in the military" to rebel against the government. Siddiqui was also charged with receiving terrorism training in Bhimber (Jammu Kashmir) at a training camp run by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. His family members insisted that Siddiqui was actually arrested in South Waziristan after he had refused to fight against local tribes suspected of having links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The South Waziristan military operation had turned out to be the biggest dent in Pakistani army discipline as several units reportedly declined to be posted there and dozens of troops refused to continue the fight against tribes. The development shocked the military high command, which had to recall most of the troops from the front line.

Such discontent clearly indicated that conflicting ideologies caused fissures in the ranks, pitting Islamists against reformists. The split actually sharpened in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US because of Musharraf's attempts under American pressure to give his army a liberal outlook more acceptable to the United States.

Several years later, with Musharraf gone with the wind and Bin Laden having already been killed, there are strong indications to suggest that Islamic extremists are still sprinkled within the lower ranks of the armed forces and have been involved in several deadly attacks on key military installations. This raises the billion-dollar question: Is the jihadi penetration of Pakistani armed forces deeper than feared?

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being Talibanisation of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11.

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