Is Pakistan's Military Facing An Enemy Within?

Jun 10, 2011
Originally published on June 10, 2011 9:12 pm

Have al-Qaida and other militant groups wormed into Pakistan's military?

It's an explosive question, considering that Pakistan's armed forces are vital U.S. allies and also guardians of a stockpile of nuclear weapons. And that was the question a Pakistani journalist addressed in an article written shortly before he was murdered last week.

Saleem Shahzad reported on last month's militant attack on a Pakistani naval base in Karachi. He quoted anonymous sources who linked that attack to the discovery of suspected al-Qaida operatives inside the navy itself.

If his story was true, it illustrated a disturbing infiltration of Pakistan's navy. Security officials have affirmed to NPR that a central allegation of the story was true: Pakistan's armed forces have found evidence of al-Qaida figures in their ranks, and a number of men were detained for questioning even before the naval base attack.

The tale of the reporter's death is a major news story in Pakistan. Shahzad disappeared on May 29, and was later found dead in a waterway, disfigured by apparent signs of torture. Suspicion fell on Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which had complained to Shahzad about his past reporting. The uproar against the ISI was so widespread that the agency, which almost never makes a public statement, publicly denied a role in the abduction.

We don't know if someone wanted to silence Shahzad (both militants and the authorities have been known to respond brutally to media coverage they didn't like). But his final story, for the website Asia Times, examined an issue that deeply concerns Pakistan's military establishment.

When militants struck the naval base in May, they made it past base security and destroyed two precious electronic surveillance planes. Many news accounts suggested the attackers had inside information about the base, and investigators eventually detained a former Pakistani commando for questioning.

Shahzad's Asia Times report went further, laying out a disturbing backstory that suggested a wider penetration of the military. Well before the naval base attack, Shahzad contended, the navy had detained at least 10 men currently serving in the navy's own ranks and suspected of links to al-Qaida. According to the report, al-Qaida threatened reprisals if the prisoners were not released. The navy was reportedly so concerned that it actually opened talks with al-Qaida. But the navy didn't release the men, and the naval base assault followed.

NPR was unable to verify all the details of Shahzad's final report, but Pakistani security officials did affirm this much: Before the naval base raid, a number of navy personnel were detained on suspicion of links to al-Qaida. These detentions are the latest sign of extremism within the ranks of the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution.

The foundations of this infiltration were laid many years ago.

Retired army Lt. Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former head of the ISI and now in charge of the defense committee in Pakistan's Senate, said in an interview that the armed forces are still affected by their experience in the 1980s. That's when the Islamist military ruler Zia-ul-Haq was in charge, and the U.S. was sponsoring a "holy war" against Soviet troops occupying nearby Afghanistan.

"Religion was given too much prominence," Qazi said. "And in fact Zia would reward people who showed themselves to be more Islamist, and therefore a lot of people converted toward this thinking, out of conviction or out of necessity."

Some of those same Islamists, or younger people influenced by them, still "may be existing today in the army or other services," Qazi said.

For years, extremists operated with the knowledge and consent of the military leadership. Pakistan sponsored Islamist militants in Afghanistan, as well as in a long fight with India over the disputed state of Kashmir. The government now insists it has ended such policies.

But after their government service, former soldiers and spymasters soon turned to new targets. For example, Ilyas Kashmiri, an ex-commando, went into business for himself, leading his own terrorist organization until his reported death in a drone strike last week.

"You have highly trained people who eventually retire and go back on civilian streets, and they're free to do whatever they like," says Jehangir Karamat, a retired four-star general who once held the highest rank in Pakistan's army, chief of staff. Some are recruited to use their skills.

In recent years, evidence has periodically appeared of Islamists still serving within the armed forces who are acting against their own institution. In 2009, for example, men in military uniforms blasted their way into GHQ, the heavily guarded headquarters of Pakistan's army.

And now comes the detention of men inside the navy. Current and former military officers have said in recent days that the attack on the naval base is even more disturbing to them than the recent failure to find the hiding place of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

How serious is the infiltration? Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands troops fighting militants in the far northwest, expresses full confidence in the army's discipline, as well as the military's internal security apparatus; there may be a few problems in an army of a half-million men, he says, but not many.

Qazi, the retired general and current senator, says some extremist infiltration is almost inevitable, given that Pakistan's large military draws its troops from many parts of the nation. "All sorts of people make a society," he says.

Pakistan's military is vulnerable to internal enemies precisely because it represents the society it serves — and right now, that society is at war with itself.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

As you probably know, Steve Inskeep spent the past two weeks reporting from Pakistan. But he also brought back a story of extremists infiltrating Pakistan's armed forces. And we're going to talk about that now.

Now, these are the same armed forces that are allied to the U.S., that guard a stockpile of nuclear weapons.

So, Steve, what is adding to Pakistan's concern about enemies within?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's last month's militant attack on a Pakistani naval base. This case points to a concern that a number of suspected al-Qaida figures were discovered inside Pakistan's military itself.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you're talking about an attack that made news last month, right, where a number of gunmen made it onto the naval base in Karachi?

INSKEEP: Yeah, TV video at that time showed flames rising over that naval base in the night.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #1: (Urdu language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Urdu language spoken)

INSKEEP: This reporter is describing how attackers slipped past supposedly high security and destroyed two naval surveillance planes.

Now, from the moment of the attack, Linda, authorities have suspected an inside job. And a former navy commando was eventually detained for questioning. But security officials are pursuing suspicions that the infiltration went deeper than that.

WERTHEIMER: What do you mean deeper?

INSKEEP: There is a disturbing back-story to this attack, which we're going to lay out this morning. A version of that story was first reported by a Pakistani journalist named Saleem Shahzad. In a publication called Asia Times, Shahzad reported on what led up to the naval base attack.

He said the navy arrested at least 10 men with suspected links to al-Qaida in its own ranks. Al-Qaida, he said, demanded that the men be released. And when the navy refused, the naval base was attacked in retaliation.

Shahzad reported that story in late May, and a couple of days later, as you may recall, he was found dead. His brother-in-law, Hamza Amir, told us that he saw signs of abuse on the reporter's body.

Mr. HAMZA AMIR: They had taken pictures. He had wounds on his forehead. Red marks, swollen. But it seemed very clear that he was tortured before, probably, he died.

INSKEEP: Because of the marks you saw on his face.

Mr. AMIR: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: The killing caused an uproar in Pakistan. And some suspicion has fallen on Pakistan's intelligence agency, which had complained about Shahzad's reporting in the past. The agency, the ISI, denied any involvement. And we do not know for sure if somebody wanted to silence Shahzad, the reporter here.

WERTHEIMER: But what we're tracking here, is the substance of this story, right? His claim, based on anonymous sources, that at least 10 al-Qaida suspects were found in the Pakistani navy. Is that claim true?

INSKEEP: We can't verify all the details. But security officials do affirm this much: Before the naval attack, the navy really had detained a number of al-Qaida suspects inside the service itself. And it helps to explain why current and former military officers were so disturbed by this militant attack.

WERTHEIMER: Now we've heard a lot about Pakistan's past policies supporting militant groups, but this sounds like something different.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that was official, covert support. This is a case of a fair number of people, currently in uniform, who are suspected of working against their own institution. And it's not the first case of this. A couple of years ago you may recall, men in military uniforms somehow shot their way into Pakistan's army headquarters and there was suspicion at that time that the attackers had connections inside.

WERTHEIMER: So where do they think these extremists are coming from.

INSKEEP: Part of the answer comes from Pakistan's history. Back in the 1980s, a military ruler, Zia ul-Haq, promoted Islam in the military and this was, of course, at the same time that the United States was promoting a so-called holy war, based from Pakistan, into Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union had occupied. I met a retired Pakistani general who's now a Pakistani senator, named Javed Ashraf Qazi, who remembers those times very well.

General JAVED ASHRAF QAZI (Pakistani Senator): Religion was given too much prominence. And in fact Zia would reward people who showed themselves to be more Islamist. And therefore, a lot of people converted towards this thinking -out of conviction or out of necessity - but a lot of people became sympathetic to that. Some of them may be existing even today, in the army or other services.

INSKEEP: And General Qazi should know, Linda, if anybody does know, because he's now head of the defense committee in the Pakistani senate.

WERTHEIMER: Aren't there a number of retired officers who've gone on to careers as militants?

INSKEEP: Yeah, as we heard from a former Pakistani army chief of staff named Jehangir Karamat.

General JEHANGIR KARAMAT (Former Pakistani Army Chief of Staff): I'm saying retired members, once they're retired, go back to their villages and they're living there. Anybody can approach them. You have a lot of people. This is an army which has been in existence for 60 years. You've got highly trained people who eventually retire and go back on civilian streets, and then they're free to do whatever they like.

INSKEEP: General Karamat says this happens with former American soldiers, which is true, some go on to become military contractors, some become mercenaries, some get involved in really strange activities. And nobody really denies, at this point, that at some former Pakistani officers who used to work with militant groups as part of official policy, kept working with militants even after that policy changed. That's one problem. The other question, though, is how many current officers the military may need to root out of its own ranks.

WERTHEIMER: So is there any way to tell how widespread it is?

INSKEEP: I heard a variety of opinions from current and former officers. Here's an example, the general commanding army forces in Pakistan's violent tribal zones in the far northwest near Afghanistan, thinks the problem is minor. He says he's got great faith in the army's discipline. Other officers put their faith in the army's internal investigations units, which look into these problems. General Javed Ashraf Qazi, the Pakistani senator, told me he thought the numbers is not huge, but he does say it's a matter for concern.

General QAZI: I won't say that the highest level, people are like that. There may be some, very few, who may have this thinking or who may be so inclined, because even when I was serving, there was some generals who were extremists in their views. But that all sorts of people make up society and this happens in every society.

INSKEEP: Would you consider the last point there for a moment. Pakistan's military has hundreds of thousands of people. They represent, in effect, the whole country, and so it's inevitable that Pakistan is going to have some problem with extremist infiltration, because the military represents a nation at war with itself.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.