A recent publication by an al-Qaida militant group about a retired Pakistani three-star general joining its ranks has renewed debate about the influence of Islamist militants in the country’s military.
Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad, the al-Qaida Indian subcontinent branch, in its mid-February Urdu language magazine announced that retired Lieutenant General Shahid Aziz had entered “the righteous path” by joining the group. It claimed Aziz had pledged allegiance to the group as early as 2015 after being contacted by the group’s leader, Hafiz Tayab Nawaz.
“You understood the invitation of truth, proclaimed your service to God and joined us in the cause of jihad,” the group said.
Husain Haqqani, the director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., told VOA that Aziz was likely radicalized because of his increased discontent with the Pakistani army and his anti-American sentiments.
Haqqani said the general’s mysterious disappearance in 2016 after disclosing sensitive information in a book about the Pakistani military was a clear indication of his affiliation with al-Qaida.
“Aziz’s book and beliefs show that his heart, however, was always in jihad and he clearly held hardline Islamist views. He felt guilty over the Pakistan army’s cooperation with the United States though he remained loyal to the institution while in service. He wrote that the army he served in for 37 years had fallen into the ways of the devil due to [former President Pervez] Musharraf’s cooperation with the U.S.,” Haqqani said.
Pakistani authorities are rejecting claims that Aziz joined the al-Qaida affiliate, saying reports on the issue are made up to distort the country’s military.
“It is yet again one of those stories that are put in the media that have no basis or evidence, so I will not comment on that,” Aisha Farooqui, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson, told VOA.
During his 37-year career in the Pakistani military, Aziz was given several high-level posts, including chief of general staff and commander of the IV Corps in Lahore. He was also a key figure in assisting Musharraf in overthrowing Nawaz Sharif’s elected government in 1999.
After retiring from the military in 2005, Aziz was appointed chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, a post he claimed that he was forced to resign from in 2007 because of pressure from the Pakistani government to close an investigation into former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Pakistani media in May 2018 reported that Aziz had left Pakistan and died while fighting in the jihadist ranks. Musharraf then told local media, “There is no official news, but some reports say that he has grown a beard and is fighting in Syria. Some even suggest he is dead.”
Aziz’s son, Zeeshan Aziz, at that time denied his father’s death, telling VOA that the retired general was enjoying “a very private life and does not want public appearances.”
Martyred — maybe
Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad’s publication last month did not confirm whether Aziz was dead or alive.
“According to the information al-Qaida received, Shahid Aziz was martyred for the cause of God. May Allah accept you and grant you martyrdom. Although there is a slight possibility you are alive and under custody. And in that case, we pray for your quick release,” the group said.
This is not the first time that high-ranking Pakistani military officers have been accused of involvement in extremist organizations.
The U.S. in 2008 accused former Intelligence Director General Hamid Gul of aiding al-Qaida and the Taliban and reportedly sought to have him placed on a U.N. terrorist watch list.
Gul said those accusations were baseless.
According to Shuja Nawaz, a Washington-based Pakistan political analyst with the Atlantic Council, hardline religious organizations in Pakistan have worked for years to penetrate the military to establish their influence. He said that effort had been particularly successful by Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary movement that urges Muslims to return to practicing Islam during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
“Belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat has traditionally been seen as being benign in the sense that it is religiously oriented and is not a sort of militant organization. However, the change from being a member of the Jamaat to being recruited by a militant organization can occur and often does occur on the fringes of the Tablighi Jamaat, and particularly at the annual gatherings when people come to Raiwand [Lahore] and or go to Dhaka. And that is where a lot of the recruitment occurs. So it's not unlikely that the other generals or other key individuals have followed that path,” Nawaz told VOA.
Nawaz did say that despite instances where some military officials established ties with militant groups, it is not a widespread phenomenon within the military.
“There are various instances of individuals who have established these links while serving in the military,” he said. “I think it's a stretch to say that the military allows such people, because I don't think it condones this behavior.”
Michael Kugelman, a South Asian regional expert at the Wilson Center, told VOA that years of campaigning by radical groups in the country has emboldened prejudices in society, making it more vulnerable to extremist ideologies.
“This is Pakistan, a country with an enabling environment for extremism,” Kugelman said. “It’s very easy for someone to be radicalized and to be entranced by the hateful dialogues prevalent in society and espoused by terror groups.”
He added that Sunni extremist organizations continue to spread hatred of minorities such as Shiites and Ahmadis, as well as countries such as the U.S. and India.
VOA’s Deewa Service contributed to this report.