By Zeeshan Haider and Myra MacDonald
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistan army has extended an investigation into officers with links to the Hizb-ul-Tahrir, a spokesman said on Wednesday, in what analysts said was a long overdue move to root out sympathizers of the banned Islamist group.
The military, which said on Tuesday it had detained a brigadier -- the highest-ranking serving officer arrested in a decade -- said on Wednesday it had questioned four majors over links to the case.
Hizb-ul-Tahrir (HT) has a non-violent agenda to establish an Islamic theocracy but security analysts say it lacks mass support so focuses its message on the military since a coup would be the easiest way to overthrow Pakistan's civilian government.
"Hizb-ul-Tahrir has a long-standing policy of recruiting from the military," said Maajid Nawaz, a former HT member who now runs the counter-radicalization group Quilliam in Britain, where the group is particularly active.
He said he had been sent from Britain to Pakistan to build up the branch after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests added to its potential as a strong base from which to establish an Islamic Caliphate.
"That's why we were sent," he told Reuters, adding that he had also been tasked with recruiting supporters in the military.
He did not believe Hizb-ul-Tahrir would succeed in seizing power, but said the army was to be commended for cracking down on the group since its Islamist agenda had divided Pakistan at a time when it needed to unite against extremism.
Brigadier Ali Khan was detained last month but his arrest was announced only on Tuesday. Both his wife and lawyer dismissed allegations that he was linked to the Hizb-ul-Tahrir.
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told Reuters on Wednesday the four majors had been questioned but had not been detained. "They are being questioned in relation to the brigadier case," he said.
The Pakistan army is under pressure to root out Islamist sympathizers in its ranks after U.S. forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2.
Washington has said it believes the al Qaeda leader was helped by elements within the Pakistani security establishment.
The raid, which humiliated the military, has also exacerbated strains within the army, where U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are deeply unpopular.
While the army is well disciplined, analysts have long feared some officers, uncomfortable about Pakistan's support for the United States since 2001, would be drawn to the Islamist anti-American agenda offered by groups like Hizb-ul-Tahrir.
MAKING AN EXAMPLE OF THE BRIGADIER
The arrest of the brigadier, said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi, "is very significant because it represents a clear and explicit acknowledgement of a problem" of Islamist extremism in the armed forces.
He said that Hizb-ul-Tahrir did not pose a threat to the operational capability of the army, but its ideas had to be combated by making an example out of the brigadier.
"They do have some influence within the military. They basically address educated people, educated Muslims, middle-class, lower middle-class," said Imtiaz Gul at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
Though banned, the Hizb-ul-Tahrir operates in Pakistan, clandestinely distributing leaflets and sending e-mail and text messages, and says it has a right to argue its case.
"This is an illegitimate ban which we continue to challenge and we continue to do our work," Taji Mustafa, a spokesman for Hizb-ul-Tahrir in London, told Reuters.
He denied the group specifically targeted the military. "We work with all sections of society."
The Hizb-ul-Tahrir, which means "Party of Liberation," is not banned in Britain, and has tended to attract supporters among well-educated British Pakistanis.
Nawaz said the group, which was founded in 1953 and follows a Salafist, or purist, tradition of Islam, had inspired militant groups but did not agree with their methods.
Its real threat to Pakistan, he said, was that it encouraged people to be ideologically driven in ways that polarized society and made it hard to counter extremism.
The group says on its UK website that Pakistan is a powerful nuclear-armed country, let down by a corrupt government, absence of Islamic rule and subservience to the West - all ideas which already have widespread currency.
"Indeed, if one or more strong Muslim countries were merged as a Khilafah (Caliphate) state within which Islam was implemented, this would be a powerful starting point for the re-unification of the entire Muslim World as the world's most powerful state."
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in London, Chris Allbritton and Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)