Governments in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have long rounded up alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Party of Liberation), a radical group seeking a theocracy in the region. Human rights advocates say the governments use the group as a pretext to violate due process and human rights. But when Russia and Germany called the group a threat, momentum built in Washington to examine it more cautiously.
The Russian Federal Security Service arrested Hizb-ut-Tahrir members during a June 6 raid on the party's Moscow headquarters. Roughly four months earlier, Russia labeled Hizb-ut-Tahrir a terrorist entity. Though Hizb-ut-Tahrir advocates nonviolent methods, German authorities outlawed it in January for propagating anti-Semitism, according to Russia's Vrema Novosti newspaper. The group operates a clandestine network in 40 countries around the world, with headquarters apparently in London. While it has never attached itself to violent acts, it has provoked strong suspicion in nations vulnerable to terrorism. One of those nations may be the United States.
The administration of US President George W. Bush promised the public after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that it would be alert to emerging threats, including terrorism and other destabilizing activities against its military assets, citizens and allies. This definition includes, for the administration's purposes, groups that might cooperate with explicitly warring networks such as al Qaeda, or groups that may also generate political instability and threaten pro-American regimes in Central Asia and other key geographic areas. The Bush administration is reportedly examining whether Hizb-ut-Tahrir is growing increasingly militant.
The group's web site published a treatise on May 24 declaring the United States a global threat that only a caliphate could stop. Analysts advising a heightened state of alarm note that two men arrested in the Moscow raid, identified as Alisher Musayev of Kyrgyzstan and Akram Dhzalolov of Tajikistan, reportedly carried explosives and leaflets at the time of arrest. While officials in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have faced accusations of planting leaflets on innocent people, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir's web site called the raid a staged event that "will not fool anyone," the story has bolstered arguments for closer White House scrutiny. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is hard to track precisely because the group has no official head, office or base. Its spread around the globe over the last five decades, both in Western Europe and often in authoritarian states with strong secret police organizations, speaks to an impressive ability to work underground. In this regard, Hizb-ut-Tahrir arguably bears comparison to al Qaeda. In its single focus and reportedly monolithic positions, it also recalls a Bolshevik or Marxist-Leninist organization, albeit one that espouses explicitly Islamist ideology.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is akin to a disciplined, Marxist-Leninist party, in which internal dissent is not tolerated. Because its goal is global revolution, the group bears comparison to a Trotskyite project. Its literature establishes that an "Islamic system" is neither monarchical nor republican. Reportedly, candidate members become well-versed in such literature during a two-year indoctrination course in a study circle, supervised by a party member. Women are organized in cells supervised by a woman cadre or a male relative. After joining the party, the new recruit may be requested (or ordered) to relocate to start a new cell.
The group defines itself in a June 14 communique on its website as "a political party that does not undertake material actions." Some analysts believe, though, that when a critical mass of cells is achieved, according to its doctrine, the group may move to take over a country in preparation for the establishment of the caliphate. It is hard to dismiss out of hand the possibility that such a takeover would be bloody and violent, or that explicitly terrorist groups would exploit such an effort for its own ends.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir served notice in October 2001, two days after American and allied bombers began striking Afghanistan, that the United States and Great Britain had declared war on all Muslims. "A state of war exists between them and all the Muslims that necessitates adopting an actual state of war as a basis for dealing with them according to the dictates of the Shari'ah rules," reads a message on the group's web site. While the Qu'ran explicitly forbids killing civilians during war, Osama bin Laden declared that all Americans were legitimate targets. If Hizb-ut-Tahrir's fiery rhetoric and unclear funding sources blend with its dismissal of illegitimate regimes, violence may well occur in its name.
To prevent Hizb-ut-Tahrir from destabilizing Central Asia and other areas, the Bush administration may pursue a number of policy options. It may seek to improve intelligence-gathering efforts on the group in Western Europe and in Central Asia, Pakistan and Indonesia. It may also express its growing irritation with the glacial pace of economic reform in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, by tethering security assistance to Central Asia on economic reform.
As secular political space and economic opportunity in the region remain absent, groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir will grow more alluring. The Bush Administration can establish that it will only provide military assistance to Central Asian regimes that implement free market policies, strengthen property rights and the rule of law, encourage transparency, and fight corruption. Central Asian governments have demonstrated expertise at cracking down on suspected destabilizing groups. To make headway against danger, the Bush administration will have to compel these regimes to develop democratic systems and present secular, law-abiding choices.
By Ariel Cohen,
A EurasiaNet Commentary/ Heritage Foundation Report, June 24, 2003