ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials have arrested a retired Pakistani army major for his suspected role in an alleged plot that was hatched in the U.S. to assassinate the creator of controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, the Pakistani army said Tuesday.
The news will fuel growing fears about the radicalization of Pakistan's army, and particularly the links between former army officers and Islamic extremists.
Two men of Pakistani origin, U.S. citizen David Coleman Headley and Canadian national Tahawwur Hussain Rana, were charged in Chicago with planning an armed attack in Denmark. Their target was the cartoonist and Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published the cartoons in 2005.
The U.S. indictment said the two had been in contact with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and also with Pakistani extremist Ilyas Kashmiri — the first time that Kashmiri and Lashkar have been firmly linked to an alleged plot in the West.
The group, which has long had links to Pakistan's military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, is thought to be responsible for the terrorist attack that killed more than 160 people in the Indian city of Mumbai last year.
The Pakistani army said the major, who retired two years ago, was arrested a couple of months ago. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief army spokesman, denied that any others were detained in connection with the Danish cartoons plot.
"He (the retired major) was in communication with those guys (Headley and Rana) in the States," Abbas said, adding: "Once you leave the army, you become a private citizen."
The Associated Press reported that five officers were detained, including at least two serving lieutenant colonels. Abbas called the AP account, which said that those arrested also included a retired brigadier general, a "fabrication" by those running a "campaign" to embarrass the Pakistan army.
The retired major was arrested in Rawalpindi, the garrison city that houses the Pakistan's military headquarters, according to a Pakistani security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Now being held by Pakistani intelligence, the retired officer may have been taken into custody on information the FBI gathered from its interrogation of the suspects in Chicago. It appears that he was in e-mail and telephone contact with the two men in Chicago.
According to the criminal complaint against Headley, he was in regular contact with an "individual A" and traveled to Pakistan to meet him, and together they visited Kashmiri in the country's lawless tribal area.
While discipline within the ranks of the army has remained strong, a number of former officers have been involved in terrorist groups, including some who've attacked the Pakistani army. A former army medical orderly led an assault on the military headquarters last month.
The FBI said Headley traveled to Pakistan this year and was headed there again when he was arrested on Oct. 3 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Headley changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006 in order to disguise his Muslim identity and to make international travel easier, an FBI affidavit said. He and Rana are charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorism and providing material support to terrorism.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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