In recent months, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a global Islamist group which aims to re-establish the caliphate, has come under increasing pressure in the United Kingdom from several sources: through the high-profile defections of ex-members, from sustained media scrutiny and from members of parliament who have called for the group to be proscribed or banned outright (such as David Cameron’s July call to ban the group). In consequence, the group—regarded by analysts as an important “conveyor-belt” organization that provides its members with the ideological justification for acts of violent jihad—has been forced to change its approach. This is expected to have a number of long-term global consequences both for the group itself, whose logistical headquarters is in London, and for more radical jihadi groups in the UK.
HT was founded in 1953 in Jordan. Since then, it has established itself as an influential Islamist opposition group in numerous countries, notably in the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. Working largely outside the formal political system, it aims to non-violently overthrow the rulers of Muslim-majority states, re-create the caliphate and then invite the non-Muslim world to accept Islam—declaring jihad against them if they refuse.
In the UK, this confrontational, anti-Western rhetoric has won HT significant numbers of followers in universities since the early 1990s. Because the group did not directly advocate jihadi attacks, however, it was largely ignored by the government. This has changed as more evidence has emerged that several former members of HT had set up or joined smaller radical groups or terrorist cells. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a former leader of the group in the UK, left to found al-Muhajiroun, a now-disbanded jihadi group that sent British Muslims to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Another former British member of HT, Omar Sharif, carried out a suicide attack on a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003. Bilal Abdulla, an Iraqi doctor now facing trial for planning to set off car bombs in central London on June 29, was also reportedly part of HT circles in Cambridge.
The increasingly clear role played by HT in radicalizing these individuals, coupled with the denouncements of the group by several senior ex-members, may be now tipping the government toward taking action—something first proposed after the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Supporters of a ban argue that banning the group or proscribing it (preventing it from holding public meetings or printing material for instance) would make it harder for HT to recruit new members and hurt its ability to organize itself in the UK and abroad. Banning the group would also set a powerful precedent by showing that even groups that do not openly advocate jihadi attacks can be targeted by government institutions.
The renewed calls for a ban could hardly have come at a worse time for HT. On August 12, the group organized its largest ever event when it held a rally in Jakarta, which was attended by 100,000 Indonesian members (https://www.hizb.org.uk). In addition, HT is now showing steady growth in areas where rival Islamist groups have failed to deliver results—notably in the West Bank where Palestinians deserting Fatah are unwilling to embrace Hamas (The Telegraph, August 27). Because many of these operations abroad are dependent on the work of the group’s logistical and administrative headquarters in London, any UK government action—such as a freezing of the group’s bank accounts—would swiftly have a serious effect on its worldwide operations, at the very moment when half a century of hard work appears to be producing tangible results for the organization.
Yet, while banning the group in the UK would clearly inhibit the group’s UK activities in the short-term and set back its overseas operations, many of HT’s most vociferous opponents say that the continued threat of a ban may be more useful. Ed Husain, a former senior member of the group who is today one of its most public critics, says that while the group paves the way for further jihadi attacks in the UK by promoting hatred of non-Muslims, an outright ban would further strain relations between the government and the UK’s Muslim community and allow the group to paint themselves as martyrs and victims of official “Islamophobia.” Husain instead told this author that a better strategy is to use the threat of a ban to pressure the group into becoming more moderate and to “expose HT’s political strategy (Islamism) to burst their psychological bubble; to expose that they preach a level of hatred that is simply unacceptable in a civilized society.”
So far, this strategy of pressuring HT to become moderate seems to be working. HT’s UK members are gradually abandoning some of their hard-line ideologies and toning down their anti-Western rhetoric—at least in public. If this change is genuine, it might mean that the group will cease to be a recruiting ground for jihadis—the main reason given for banning the group. In addition, forcing the group to become moderate also avoids one of the major risks of an outright ban: that it might merely force the group underground and thereby drive its thousands of members closer to hardcore jihadi groups. The downside of not banning the group is that while it might lessen the risk of Islamic terrorism in the UK, it would do little to help other countries with HT cells. These overseas branches would thus remain able to preach their separatist message unimpeded, while still using London as a logistical hub, thereby risking a repeat of the “conveyor-belt” effect already seen in the UK in dozens of other countries.