May 30, 2003 | Backgrounder on Russia
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) is an emerging threat to American interests in Central and South Asia and the Middle East. It is a clandestine, cadre-operated, radical Islamist political organization that operates in 40 countries around the world, with headquarters apparently in London. Its proclaimed goal is jihad against America and the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a Caliphate (Khilafah in Arabic), a theocratic dictatorship based on the Shari'a (religious Islamic law). The model for Hizb is the "righteous" Caliphate, a militaristic Islamic state that existed in the 7th and 8th centuries under Mohammad and his first four successors, known as the "righteous Caliphs."
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks taught the United States a painful lesson--that it must be alert to emerging threats, including terrorism and other destabilizing activities against its military assets, citizens, and allies. Some of these emerging threats, combined with the actions of terrorist jihadi organizations, such as al-Qaeda, may also generate political instability in key geographic areas and threaten friendly regimes. In Central Asia, the security situation has deteriorated because the war against Saddam Hussein's regime has intensified the resolve of anti-American forces already active in the region.1
The United States has important national security interests at stake in Central Asia, including access to the military bases used to support operations in Afghanistan, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and technologies for their production, and securing access to natural resources, including oil and gas. The U.S. is also committed to spreading democracy, promoting market reforms, and improving human rights standards in the vast heartland of Eurasia.
Therefore, to prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir from destabilizing Central Asia and other areas, the U.S. should expand intelligence collection on Hizb. The U.S. should encourage Central Asian governments to pursue reforms that will expand civil society and diminish the alienation on which Hizb and fundamentalist Islamist movements are preying. Specifically, the U.S. should condition security assistance on economic reform, encourage democracy and popular participation, discredit radical Islamist movements, and support religious and political moderation and pluralism.
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami is an emerging threat to American interests and the countries in which it operates. It has 5,000-10,000 hard-core members, and many more supporters in former Soviet Central Asia (e.g., Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), and is expanding its operations to oil-rich Kazakhstan. Over 10,000 members are active in Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Indonesia.2 At least 500 are already behind bars in Uzbekistan alone, and hundreds are in custody in the Middle East.3 By breeding violent anti-American attitudes, attempting to overthrow existing regimes, and preparing cadres for more radical Islamist organizations, Hizb poses a threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia and elsewhere in the Islamic world where moderate regimes are found.
Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani al Falastini, the founder of Hizb, has written that every Muslim should strive to establish a Caliphate and that this religious imperative (fard) upon the Muslim nation (Umma) is so strong that Mohammad's close allies delayed burying his body until a new Caliph was appointed and the Caliphate established.4 The Caliphate would be led by a Caliph: a supreme, pious leader who would combine religious and political power.5
A Caliph, an-Nabhani believes, is a substitute for Mohammad as both political and religious leader. The Caliph would appoint an Amir, or military leader, who would declare jihad and wage war against all non-believers, including the United States. According to Hizb's political vision, such an entity, if established, would not recognize existing national, regional, tribal, or clan differences and would include all Muslims.
An-Nabhani has drafted the constitution of this future Caliphate. It is not the constitution of a democratic state. The Caliph would be appointed by acclamation by "prominent men," with male voters casting a vote of approval. The ruler would not be directly accountable to the people, and there would be no checks or balances between branches of government. Succession would be by designation of the Caliph or acclamation of the oligarchy.
Thus, Hizb explicitly rejects democracy. In fact, one of an-Nabhani's books is titled Democracy: The Law of Infidels.6 Yet some regional observers have called for the legitimization of Hizb and its integration into the existing political model.7 In doing so, they ignore the obvious--Hizb's goal is to smash the existing state apparatus, not to become a player within it.
Since its inception in 1952 in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, Hizb has gained tens of thousands of followers from London to Lahore.8 From its beginning, an-Nabhani's organization was influenced by the rabid anti-Semitism propagated by Sheikh Hajj Amin Al-Housseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was a major Nazi war collaborator.9
An-Nabhani, who was serving at the time on the Islamic appellate court in Jerusalem, was an associate and contemporary of Hajj Amin's.10 He also drew on the organizational principles of Marxism-Leninism, which were quite well-known among the middle- and upper-class Arabs in British Mandate Palestine. Khaled Hassan, one of the founders of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was also among the founders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, as was Sheikh Asaad Tahmimi, who became Islamic Jihad's spiritual leader.11 Hizb supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and backs the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, a radical movement on the U.S. State Department's terrorism list.12
An-Nabhani was also member of the radical Islamic Brotherhood (Al Ihwan al-Muslimeen), a secretive international fundamentalist organization founded in Egypt in 1928, which spread throughout the Islamic world and preaches the establishment of a Caliphate. He joined the Brotherhood while studying in Cairo's Al-Azhar University but later left the Brotherhood because he considered it too soft.13 It is likely that Hizb was supported initially by the Saudi-based radical Islamist Wahhabi movement, although the extent to which that support continues today is unclear.14
Hizb ut-Tahrir's spread around the globe, in Western Europe and often in authoritarian states with strong secret police organizations, is impressive. It could be accomplished only by applying 20th century totalitarian political "technology" melded with Islamic notions of the 7th and 8th centuries, as interpreted by medieval Islamic scholars. The genius of Hizb founder an-Nabhani was marrying Orthodox Islamist ideology to Leninist strategy and tactics.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is a totalitarian organization, akin to a disciplined Marxist-Leninist party, in which internal dissent is neither encouraged nor tolerated. Because its goal is global revolution, a leading Islamic scholar has compared it to the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement.15 Its candidate members become well-versed in party literature during a two-year indoctrination course in a study circle, supervised by a party member. Only when a member "matures in Party culture," "adopts the thoughts and opinions of the party," and "melts with the Party" can he or she become a full-fledged member.16 Women are organized in cells supervised by a female cadre or a male relative. After joining the party, the new recruit may be requested (or ordered) to relocate to start a new cell.
When a critical mass of cells is achieved, according to its doctrine, Hizb may move to take over a country in preparation for the establishment of the Caliphate. Such a takeover would likely be bloody and violent. Moreover, its strategy and tactics show that, while the party is currently circumspect in preaching violence, it will justify its use--just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did--when a critical mass is achieved.17
Hizb's platform and actions fit in with "Islamist globalization"--an alternative mode of globalization based on radical Islam. This ideology poses a direct challenge to the Western model of a secular, market-driven, tolerant, multicultural globalization.18
Where radicalization has taken hold in the Islamic world, Hizb has gained new supporters in droves. It operates clandestinely in over 40 countries around the world, with members organized in cells of five to eight members each. Only a cell commander knows the next level of leadership, ensuring operational security. "Representatives" in Great Britain and Pakistan claim to speak for the organization but have no official address or legal office. Leadership for large regions (e.g., the former Soviet Union), countries, and local areas is kept secret.
Hizb's primary characteristics include the fiery rhetoric of jihad, secret cells and operations, murky funding sources, rejection of existing political regimes, rapid transnational growth, and outlook and goals that are shared with al-Qaeda and other organizations of the global jihadi movement.
Hizb has called for a jihad against the U.S., its allies, and moderate Muslim states. The purpose of the jihad is "to find and kill the Kufar (non-believers)," in fact rejecting the Islamic notion of Greater Jihad against one's own as a sin.19
In documents drafted before 9/11, Hizb leaders accused the United States of imposing hegemony on the world. After 9/11, Hizb claimed that the U.S. had declared war against the global Muslim community (Umma), had established an international alliance under the "pretext" of fighting terrorism, and was reinforcing its grip on the countries of Central Asia. Hizb further claimed that the U.S. accused Osama bin Laden of being responsible for the 9/11 attacks "without any evidence or proof."
The party attempted to use its influence by calling upon all Muslim governments to reject the U.S. appeal for cooperation in the war against terrorism.20 It called for expulsion of U.S. and Western citizens, including Western diplomats, from countries in which it will take power and shredding diplomatic treaties and agreements with Western governments. It further declared:
Muslims! You are religiously obliged to reject this American question which takes you lightly and despises you. America does not have the sublime values that entitle it to tell you what to support and whom to fight against. You possess a divine mission. You are the ones to bring guidance and light to mankind. God described you with the following words: "You are the best people brought forth for the benefit of mankind. You enjoin good and forbid evil. And you believe in God."
As for Jihad...it is legal, in fact it is an obligation, it is the apex of Islamic ethics, as Almighty God says, "Keep in store for them whatever you are capable of, force and equipment with which you can frighten those who are enemies of God and enemies of yourselves...." God's Messenger (Mohammed) said, "Islam is the head, prayer is the backbone and Jihad is the perfection."
Muslims! The law of religion does not allow you to give to America what it is trying to impose upon you. You are not allowed to follow its orders or to provide it with any assistance whatsoever, no matter whether it be intelligence or facilities of using your territory, your air space or your territorial waters. It is not permissible to cede military bases to the Americans, nor it is allowed to coordinate any military activities with them or to collaborate with them. It is not allowed to enter into an alliance with them or to be loyal to them, because they are enemies of Islam and Muslims. God said, "Believers, Do not befriend my enemy and your enemy.... They have rejected the truth that has come to you."21
In a June 2001 article published in the party's journal, Hizb ideologists claim that all methods are justified in the struggle against the unbelievers, including murder. They specifically mention that a pilot's diving a plane hit by enemy fire into a crowd of unbelievers without bailing out with a parachute is a legitimate form of armed struggle. Hizb also demands that Muslims come to the support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.22
[T]he war waged by America, the head of Kufr, and Britain and their allies from the Kafir states on Afghanistan is a crusade.... What America and Britain are doing is displaying their enmity for the Islamic Ummah. They are enemies; 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. That position should be adopted with them and all those who ally themselves with them in their war against the Muslims.23
The war of America and her allies against Islam and the Muslims has shown the corrupt nature of her civilization and her colonial world-view. The War on Iraq...has demonstrated that America and her allies only strive to colonize and plunder the resources of the Islamic world, not to bring about justice and security.... America is intending to deceive you.... [S]he is inherently weak as her ideology is false and corrupt.... The time has come for Islam not just in Iraq but in this entire Ummah. It is time for the Islamic State (Khilafah) to lead the world and save the world from the crimes and oppression of the capitalist system.24
According to one of the Hizb Central Asian leaders, "we are very much opposed to the Jews and Israel.... Jews must leave Central Asia. The United States is the enemy of Islam with the Jews."25
Anti-Americanism, extremism, and preaching the violent overthrow of existing regimes make Hizb ut-Tahrir a prime suspect in the next wave of violent political action in Central Asia and other Muslim countries with relatively weak regimes, such as Pakistan and Indonesia.
Struggle, Jihad, and Violence
Hizb ut-Tahrir sees its struggle in parallel with the three stages that Mohammad experienced en route to the establishment of the Caliphate 1,400 years ago. These are spreading the word of God to the communities of Arabia; the flight from Mecca to Medina in order to establish the first Islamic community there; and, finally, the conquest of Mecca, jihad, and the establishment of the Caliphate.
In the past, members of Hizb participated in coups against pro-Western regimes in the Middle East, such as the failed 1968 officers' coup against King Hussein II of Jordan.27 Despite its authoritarian and highly disciplined cadre structure, Hizb claimed that members who participated in the coup did so in an "individual capacity." However, more recently, Hizb representatives, together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, participated in coordination meetings sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Jihad has to continue till the Day of Judgment. So whenever disbelieving enemies attack an Islamic country it becomes compulsory on its Muslim citizens to repel the enemy. The members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in that country are part of the Muslims and it is obligatory upon them as [it] is upon other Muslims (not resident in that country) in their capacity as Muslims, to fight the enemy and expel them. Whenever there is a Muslim amir who declares jihad to enhance the Word of Allah and mobilizes the people to do that, the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir will respond in their capacity as Muslims in the country where the general call to arms was proclaimed.28
At this time, Hizb ut-Tahrir aims to seize power and supplant existing governments in Central Asia and elsewhere with an Islamist version based on Shari'a for the purpose of jihad against the West, which includes the following:
Hizb also seeks to penetrate state structures and convert government officials and military officers to its creed. Its platform openly states that "the Party started to seek the support of the influential people with two objectives in mind:
Hizb has begun to penetrate the elites in Central Asia. Observers in the region have reported successes in penetrating the Parliament in Kyrgyzstan, the media in Kazakhstan, and customs offices in Uzbekistan.
U.S. strategic interests in Central Asia include both access to the military bases needed for operations in Afghanistan and deterring the establishment of safe havens for terrorist organizations. The U.S. is seeking to prevent a country, a group of countries, or a transnational movement or organization from establishing hegemonic control in the region. This includes barring transnational Islamic fundamentalist organizations and drug cartels from emerging as ruling bodies or dominant regional power centers.
The U.S. must also prevent Central Asia from becoming an arsenal of dangerous weaponry and should prevent the development and production of weapons of mass destruction in the region, to preclude them from falling into the hands of rogue regimes or terrorists. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to ensure equal access to the energy resources of the region, primarily in the Caspian Sea area, and encourage development of the East-West transportation and economic corridors, also known as the Silk Road. Finally, the U.S. should encourage economic reform, expansion of civic space, democratization, and development of open society in the region.32
The secular regimes of Central Asia have little to no democratic legitimacy. Most of their rulers are Soviet-era communist party leaders. Almost no political space is left for secular opposition in these states. U.S. objectives are thus jeopardized not only by the authoritarian parties of radical Islamic revolution such as Hizb, but also by the authoritarian nature of these Central Asian regimes themselves, with their rampant corruption, declining living standards, poor delivery of public goods and services, and stagnant or declining economies. By governing so poorly and being intolerant and undemocratic, these regimes inadvertently breed religious extremism.33
In this environment, Hizb ut-Tahrir has captured a protest niche that otherwise would be occupied by a legitimate political opposition. Despite this, the U.S. government, along with the policy analysis and expert communities as well as governments in the region and around the world, has yet to attain a clear picture of Hizb's real size and strength and threat it poses.
WHAT THE U.S. DOES NOT KNOW
While reports of increasing Hizb activity abound, the extent to which local Hizb activities are part of a coordinated global plan is still unknown, just as the question of whether every region and country has an autonomous leadership that defines programs and sets deadlines remains unanswered. Hizb is rumored to be operating on a 13-year grand plan which, if it exists at all, is still unknown.
At its inception, Hizb likely had strong connections to Saudi Wahhabism, but it is unclear whether these links remain today. It is equally unclear whether Hizb has one or more state sponsors and, if so, who they are. At various times, experts have speculated that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have been involved. The international intelligence community is also uncertain as to who finances the organization; who controls the funds internally; what the mode of financing is (e.g., regional self-sufficiency or centralized funding); and how funds are transferred (e.g., via the Hawala informal banking system or couriers).
The current leader of Hizb is also unknown, as are where he resides and the identity of the senior officers of Hizb. Upon his death, an-Nabhani was succeeded by Sheikh Abd-el Qadim Zaloom, another Palestinian cleric and a former professor at Al-Azhar in Cairo.34 Zaloom was with Hizb for 50 years and died on April 29, 2003.35 While anecdotal reports place the organization's headquarters in London and indicate that many European converts to Islam are staffing mid- and senior levels of the organization, very little evidence confirms this. These questions need to be answered, and a joint international program of collecting intelligence on Hizb and countering its activities must be developed.
The U.S. and its allies in the war on terrorism need to recognize that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a growing threat in Central Asia. Specifically, to develop a comprehensive strategy and counter Hizb's influence, the U.S. should:
To jump-start economic development, the Bush Administration should condition Pentagon security assistance on the adoption of free market policies, strengthening property rights and the rule of law, encouraging transparency, and fighting corruption. These measures are likely to make the Central Asian economies more attractive to private investment, stimulate domestic economic growth, and increase prosperity and economic opportunity, thus diminishing the ability of Hizb to use economic decline as an engine for recruitment, as it does in the Ferghana Valley and Kyrgyzstan.
While economic opportunity, religious freedom, and freedom of expression are not a panacea against Islamist radicalism, as the swelling ranks of young Islamic fundamentalists in Western Europe demonstrate, expanding the civic space and allowing more political pluralism, media diversity, and grassroots initiatives may diminish Hizb's appeal. According to a representative of a major U.S. NGO, some liberalization of the nonprofit sector has been attained in the Central Asian countries since 9/11. This trend needs to be encouraged.38
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department should, however, coordinate their activities with the Pentagon, World Bank, and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, all of which are interested in political stability, reducing corruption, and development of property rights and a more investment-oriented environment. Together, they are more likely to convince the Central Asian regimes to undertake further political liberalization, including competitive, free and fair elections.
The State Department and U.S.-funded NGOs should encourage more U.S. media exposure (e.g., Uzbek and other local language broadcasts by Radio Liberty and the Voice of American) and educational contacts, speaking engagements, and exchanges between local clergy and moderate Muslim leaders in the West.41 The Central Asian public needs to be directly exposed to traditional moderate local brands of Islam, Sufi mystical branches (Tariq'at), and reformist moderate Jadidi Islam.
Beyond that, secular regimes in Central Asia should stop persecuting new evangelical Christian denominations, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. Development of independent media and activities aimed at youth, women, the business community, and ethnic and religious minorities--groups more likely to be discriminated against by Hizb and other radical Sunni groups--should be encouraged and supported.42
However, Hizb, as well as Salafi/Wahhabi and other radical Islamic schools that preach jihad against America and the West, should not be allowed to operate. The U.S. should provide support to local media to cover negative examples of the application of Shari'a law, such as amputations for minor offenses or alcohol possession in Chechnya, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, and other places. The consequences of jihad-type civil war, such as in Algeria, which left 100,000-200,000 dead, should also be covered. Positive coverage of the West should also be supported.
Hizb ut-Tahrir represents a growing medium- and long-term threat to geopolitical stability and the secular regimes of Central Asia and ultimately poses a potential threat to other regions of the world. The party is transnational, secretive, and extremist in its anti-Americanism. It seeks to overthrow and destroy existing regimes and establish a Shari'a-based Caliphate.
Hizb may launch terrorist attacks against U.S. targets and allies, operating either alone or in cooperation with other global terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. A Hizb takeover of any Central Asian state could provide the global radical Islamist movement with a geographic base and access to the expertise and technology to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. and its allies must do everything possible to avoid such an outcome.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
2. Interview with Husain Haqqani, The Carnegie Endowment, May 2003; see also "Fourteen Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir Caught," Anatolia Press Agency, March 6, 2000; "More Arrests Reported in Hizb ut-Tahrir Operations," Anatolia Press Agency, March 7, 2000; FBIS/World News Connection, March 7, 2000.
3. Union of Councils Central Asian Information Network, "Uzbekistan: List of 14 Possible Political Prisoners Who Died in Jail, 5 Disappearances and 505 Possible Political Prisoners," at www.eurasianet.org/resource/uzbekistan/links/uzrt916.html.
4. Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, Khilafa, quoted in Alima Bissenova, "Hizb al-Tahrir Political Thought from the Pan-Islamic Perspective," paper presented at the 8th Annual Convention of the Association for Study of Nationalities, New York, April 2003, p. 6.
5. Al-Mawardi, The Ordinances of Government (United Kingdom: Garnett Publishing, 1996). An-Nabhani based his judgment on the work of Al-Mawardi, the first Islamic scholar who decreed the necessity of establishing the Caliphate. See Bissenova, "Hizb al-Tahrir Political Thought from the Pan-Islamic Perspective," pp. 8-11.
6. "Hizb-ut-Tahrir na `Svobode,'" (Hizb-ut-Tahrir at Radio Liberty); Vremia Po (Almaty, Kazakhstan), July 22, 2001; interview with Vitaly Ponomarev, coordinator of Central Asian program of the Moscow human rights group Memorial, available at FBIS.
10. "While in Baghdad, al-Husseini aided the pro-Nazi revolt of 1941. He then spent the rest of World War II as Hitler's special guest in Berlin, advocating the extermination of Jews in radio broadcasts to the Middle East and recruiting Balkan Muslims for the infamous SS `mountain divisions' that tried to wipe out Jewish communities throughout the region." See "Who was the Grand Mufti, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini?" at www.palestinefacts.org/pf_mandate_grand_mufti.php.
24. Hizb-ut Tahrir Britain, "An Open Letter from Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain to the Iraqi Opposition Groups Conferring in Their Conference in London," December 13, 2002, at www.islamic-state.org/leaflets/021213_OpenLetterToIraqiOppositionConfLondon.pdf.
32. "U.S. Interests in the Central Asian Republics," Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., February 12, 1998, at commdocs.house.gov/committees/intlrel/hfa48119.000/hfa48119_0f.htm.
33. Ariel Cohen, "U.S. Interests in Central Asia," testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific , March 17, 1999, at www.heritage.org/Research/AsiaandthePacific/Test031799.cfm.
36. Rashid, "Reviving the Caliphate," p. 135. Under the auspices of the Taliban, representatives of Hizb attended meetings in Kabul, Afghanistan, in which the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Al-Qaeda also participated.
40. "Uzbekistan: Harassment Before EBRD Annual Meeting," Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2003, at www.hrw.org/press/2003/05/uzbek050203.htm; see also "Persecution of Human Rights Defenders in Uzbekistan," Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, May 1, 2003, at hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/uzbek050103-bck.htm.
41. "Muslim Clerics Visit U.S.," Caspian Business News, December 16, 2002, p. 12, at www.caspianbusinessnews.com/NewSite/preview/sections/regional/docs/16-12-2002.pdf. However, USAID, which is funding visits to the U.S. by Central Asian clergy so they can learn how Islam functions in a democracy, should be careful not to expose them to U.S.-based Wahhabis, who are actively abusing the democratic system.