Pakistani Senior Officer Detained for Suspected Ties to Militant Group

ISLAMABAD -- Authorities detained a senior officer serving at Pakistani army headquarters for suspected links with a banned militant group, the army spokesman said Tuesday. The announcement could be an attempt by the military to counter Western suspicions that it tolerates militant sympathizers within its ranks.

Western officials have long suspected some Pakistani military officials, especially ones serving in the army's powerful intelligence agency, of maintaining ties with militant groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Those suspicions have spiked in the wake of last month's U.S. raid that killed Al Qaeda chief Usama 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, which he labeled a "proscribed militant organization."

The group itself has officially rejected violence, but many observers say it promotes an intolerant mindset that can ultimately lead to it.

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 denied the allegations against her husband, saying he 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 on 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 is an international Islamist organization dedicated to the notion of reviving the Islamic caliphate and unifying Muslim countries under the laws of the religion. Although it's 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.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Western officials have long worried about Islamist extremism within Pakistan's security forces given historical ties to militant groups that have fought in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir. And although analysts say the army is better than the police at rooting out extremists, current and former military officers have participated in attacks in recent years.

The army conducts regular psychological examinations of its officers, according to Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan defense analyst. Still, the system isn't perfect, especially considering army soldiers are recruited from a general population that itself has grown more religiously conservative over the last 30 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.