The Hizb ut-Tahrir: Stronger In Central Asia

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 5

The Hizb ut Tahrir al Islami (Islamic Liberation party, HuT) transnational Islamic radical movement is widely reported to have become stronger in Central Asia over the course of 2003 despite the widespread anti-terrorist activities in the region that have gravely damaged al Qaida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, now Islamic Movement of Turkestan, IMT). Reportedly 5,000 of 7,000 political prisoners held in Uzbekistan in March 2003 were from HuT. In Tajikistan, HuT activists generally received eight to twelve years’ imprisonment apiece. In addition to its strength in Central Asia, in 2003 HuT activity has been publicized in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia, among other countries. A broad range of explanations has been proposed for HuT’s increased strength despite these actions targeting it.

Background

The HuT was founded in 1953 in Jordan, where much of its high level leadership is believed to continue to live. Its roots have been strong, in recent years, in the Islamic populations of Western Europe (where until recent years it was able to operate largely in the open) and in Russia. Its original strength in Central Asia was in the Fergana Valley area, especially in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse. HuT was seen as moving there from Europe.

The HuT’s public face is not associated with explicit programs or competition with other political movements but with radical rhetoric urging broad Islamist goals. It stresses the re-establishment of a caliphate, replacing Muslim national governments. While explicitly eschewing terrorism and violence, it mixes appeals to the establishment of social justice through sharia with anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-Shia themes. A recent change in leadership is thought to be pointing HuT’s ideology in a more activist direction, with Ata Abu-I-Rushta, a Palestinian, succeeding long time (since 1977) amir, Abdul Qadeem Zalloom, another Palestinian, who died in April 2003.

Before September 11, 2001, HuT’s hierarchical yet dispersed structure, based on clandestine cells, had resulted in a low profile. The links between different national HuT groups were often indistinct. HuT has maintained elements of Leninist political tactics in its organization that have contributed to its resilience, including an emphasis on a politically reliable and homogenous cadre rather than the creation of a mass movement. It has also used conspiratorial organization tactics and has rejected accommodation in the form of either functioning as a legal opposition or in recognizing the legitimacy of other opposition groups. HuT’s basic organization as a clandestine, underground movement–it uses cell organization even in Britain, for example–enabled it to achieve a resurgence in Central Asia, despite the events of 2001-03.

Post 9/11

Since 2001, HuT has retained its headquarters in London, but has withstood tremendous changes. HuT’s base in Europe has come under pressure. It was made illegal in Germany in 2003 and in Russia in 1999. Its activities in London are under increased scrutiny. Yet despite the urging of the government of Uzbekistan and others in Central Asia, the United States has not added HuT to its list of terrorist organizations, citing a lack of evidence of the organization’s–even if not its members’–link to violent actions. Nor is the HuT banned in Kazakhstan.

The HuT response has been apparently to pull in its more visible activities and refocus from near-term political education to underground preaching and religious education while linking its political program not to the goal of a caliphate but to popular causes, either national or pan-Islamic. Former HuT members have emphasized the failure of the official Moslem clergy in the region as setting the conditions for HuT expansion. It has stayed away from the paramilitary training that marked al Qaeda and IMU activities. This has been characterized as allowing it to operate as a broad spectrum organization, drawing in both those attracted to an illegal opposition through radicalization resulting from repression by regional governments and also those that would otherwise have looked to the IMU (or al Qaeda) were it not for the damage to these groups through anti-terrorism efforts. Many of the new recruits may have been pushed towards the security offered by the HuT’s cell-based organization in contrast to the comparative vulnerability of other Islamic political opposition groups to the security services.

In Central Asia, there have been claims that a strong HuT has been used by the governments of the region to justify repressive policies and to try and curry favor with the United States and Russia, both concerned over their own anti-terrorist campaigns. These governments have been said to exaggerate HuT terrorist activities and connections. Certainly such governments have an interest in showing outsiders that the HuT is the alternative to their continued rule. International human rights groups believe that a HuT resurgence is a reaction to repressive policies by Central Asian governments. HuT members and non-HuT opposition figures alike have echoed this explanation. But the actions of Germany and other governments outside the region against HuT members in 2003 suggest that it is not only the repressive that are concerned about HuT.

While the weight of repression in much of Central Asia and its ability to radicalize potential opposition members is clear, this certainly does not mean that HuT rhetoric need be taken at face value or that it is likely to be binding on the entire organization, both within Central Asia and outside the region. HuT members and groups have been associated with terrorist activities. A UK-based member was involved with a suicide bombing in Israel. As Dr. Olivier Roy, the French writer on political Islam summarized, “Hizb ut-Tahrir has never been involved in violent actions…Hezb-ut-Tahrir is not against violence as such. It is against the use of violence now. But they still think jihad is a positive [concept].” [1]

Future prospects

Certainly, HuT’s organization means that the dispersed groups will take diverse approaches to gaining support. While the HuT’s underlying ideology is explicitly anti-nationalist, embracing a restoration of the caliphate over all Islam, it has been willing to use nationalist themes to rally support. This also has the potential to contribute to its resurgence. In 2003, HuT groups in Central Asia, as elsewhere, have embraced opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Pakistan, HuT has used dissatisfaction over the US withholding of F-16 fighters–a staple of Pakistani opposition politics for over a decade–among its themes. In practice, the HuT appears willing to use the same issues as other parties and movements to which it is in ideological opposition. “Sooner or later, they tend to express national interests even under the pretext of Islamist ideology” is how Dr. Roy sees this trend. [2]

There are currently an estimated 15-20,000 HuT members in Central Asia, making it the largest, as well as the most resilient, Islamic radical organization in the area. HuT is widely acknowledged to be receiving funding from outside the region. With the increased links to Central Asia–economic and cultural–in the years since the end of Soviet rule, the opportunity for HuT to take advantage of its organizational strength in a region where the actions of governments and opposition alike have made fertile soil for it has made it a significant force.

1. Jean-Christophe Peuch, “Russia: Security Forces Dismantle Alleged Moscow-Based Cells of Hizb Ut-Tahrir,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Report, June 10, 2003. Available at http://www.refl.org.

2. “In the Name of God,” The Economist, September 13, 2003, p.13.