ISLAMABAD -- The revelation that a senior Pakistani army officer was detained on suspicion of ties to a radical Islamist group has raised fresh concerns about the reach and influence of an organization that has long vexed analysts and politicians.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir says it rejects violence but uses venomous rhetoric and pushes for military coups. It seeks the overthrow of Pakistan's elected government and wants to unite the Muslim world under one government following strict Islamic law.
Pakistan's army confirmed on Tuesday that Brig. Ali Khan, whose rank equals that of a one-star general, is being investigated on alleged ties to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Khan's wife has called the allegations "rubbish."
Khan's lawyer, Col. Inam Rahim, claimed Wednesday that his client was arrested for demanding that someone within the military be held accountable for the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden last month not far from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.
The May 2 operation humiliated the Pakistani military, which didn't know about it beforehand, and raised questions about whether extremist sympathizers helped bin Laden hide in the army town of Abbottabad for years before he was killed – although there's no evidence yet of a military role in concealing the al-Qaida chief.
Critics of Hizb-ut-Tahrir say it's not too far off from overtly militant Islamist groups, and that its anti-West preaching paves the way for a radical mindset that eventually leads some members to pick up weapons or tolerate those who do.
"Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been an inspiration for jihadism," said Maajid Nawaz, a former member who now leads a think tank aimed at countering extremism.
The group was founded in the early 1950s in Jerusalem by Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, who the group's various websites describe as a judge, scholar and politician. In the decades since, the group spread quickly throughout Muslim nations, as well as Western countries such as Britain and the U.S., and boasts hundreds of thousands of members worldwide.
It says it wants to change Muslims' attitudes in order to lay the groundwork for restoring the Islamic caliphate, the structure that once governed much of the Muslim world. It also says it opposes democracy because the concept clashes with Islamic law, which is divine as opposed to man-made.
Hizb-u-Tahrir, which means "Party of Liberation," has not been directly and definitively tied to terrorism, and insists it is pushing its agenda peacefully. It spreads its message in part through savvy use of the Internet, relying on slick websites, Twitter and even media-friendly information packets.
But the group's advocacy of strict Islamist orthodoxy and its anti-government messages – whether it's against dictatorships or elected leaders – are seen as a threat in some countries. Turkey, Egypt and some Central Asian states are among Muslim nations that have banned it or cracked down on its activities.
Other countries such as Britain, Australia and the U.S. – where free speech and association laws offer some protection – just monitor it closely.
Britain is currently reviewing the group's status in the hopes of implementing a ban. Home Secretary Theresa May said last month that the government remained "concerned about that group's actions."
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a general who himself took power in a 1999 coup, banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2003.
Still, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has managed to operate relatively freely in Pakistan, distributing its views through text messages, leaflets and rallies. On what appears to be its Pakistan website, it appeals to army officers to overthrow the country's "traitor rulers" because of their alliance with the United States.
The group's spokesmen in Pakistan could not be reached for this article, but one recently told an Associated Press reporter in the southern city of Karachi that the majority of its members in the country were educated and often were doctors, economists and engineers. He did not give exact figures for membership.
Pakistan's army has a history of overthrowing democratically elected governments or engineering their fall through covert means, but those actions have been carried out with the consent of the top army brass and often because of a perception the elected government was dysfunctional beyond repair.
The military's top leaders view Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a threat partly because its ideological underpinnings are not about defending Pakistan but rather about establishing the caliphate, and because it could spur lower-level soldiers to try pushing aside superiors, according to former members of the armed forces.
"They don't want a coup inside the army – it would lead to anarchy," said Asad Munir, a former senior intelligence official.
Nawaz came to Pakistan in 1999 to travel and recruit members for Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He now leads the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank that promotes pluralism and has helped set up a Pakistan-based group, Khudi, aimed at countering extremist narratives.
Nawaz said Hizb-ut-Tahrir doesn't have "many thousands" of Pakistani followers but that it prefers to convert intellectual and other elites, including army officers, who hold the levers of power.
"Their strength isn't in building a mass movement," Nawaz said. "It's in the fact that they are in the intellectual vanguard in the phenomenon of Islamism, and they have inspired the rise of the phenomenon of jihadism."
Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.