Radical Islam and U.S. Interests in Central Asia

Testimony Terrorism

Radical Islam and U.S. Interests in Central Asia

October 28, 2003 30 min read
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center
Ariel was a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Before the Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives 


U.S. power projection on a global scale due to the war on terrorism raises new issues, especially with regards to the attitude of regional powers, elites, and population, toward the American presence. Much was said, often critically, about American alleged global power aspirations. What is the actual American presence in Central Asia and how much does it change the balance of power in the region? How will it affect the future of Central Asia? What are political currents and organizations, which oppose U.S. presence in that region, and what are the ways to counter them? How U.S. presence may be influenced by radical Islamic organizations there? What is the influence of the war in Iraq on perceptions of U.S. presence in Central Asia? All these questions are awaiting their answers.

U.S. presence in Central Asia is the direct result of the September 11 attack on the United States. Almost two years after, al-Qaeda is still not fully neutralized, many of its top leaders are at large, and the threat of attack on U.S. interests at home and abroad remains significant. Al-Qaeda commanders twice escaped encirclement: at Tora-Bora and during Operation Anaconda. As long as this is the case, U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia will remain crucial. While the majority of Central Asian governments welcome the U.S. forces, the war in Iraq has complicated the picture. However, beyond the immediate pressure of the war on terrorism, U.S. interests in Central Asia, defined as the five former Soviet republics, remain limited.

The presence of a U.S. military contingent in the region, and close cooperation with the local political leaders and U.S. operation to topple Saddam Hussein, may in the long term heighten tensions between Americans and local, primarily Islamic, political forces and bring friction with Islamic leaders and organizations. Perception that the U.S. actually supports authoritarian local leaders, such as President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, may provide an anti-American and anti-Western dimension to a local political rift. Transnational Islamic movements, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was closely linked to al-Qaeda, and Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) also contribute to the globalization of conflicts in Central Asia.

The U.S. Strategic Shift in Central Asia. The military necessities of the war in Afghanistan dictated the renewal of American interest and involvement in Central Asia. As the United States faced the challenge of a speedy power projection into the main front against the Taliban in the north, U.S. policy makers turned to Central Asian states and Russia.

From the end of September 2001, the U.S. started deploying special forces in the countries adjacent to Afghanistan and moving them into the Northern Alliance territory. Considering difficulties of access, the sluggish pace of diplomatic relations prior to 9/11, the lack of modern air bases, and sheer distances, this was an impressive U.S. performance.

America's Challenge. Since the fall of 2001, the U.S. projected elements of air power and special forces into Central Asia. According to General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. and NATO air force bases were established in Manas International Airport, Kyrgyzstan, and Qarshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan.[1] Elements of the U.S. military were positioned in Tajikistan. Some of these deployments came under the aegis of NATO and the Partnership for Peace program, while others through bilateral U.S.-Uzbekistan military contacts.[2] General Anthony Zinni, then-CINC of the Central Command, which is geographically in charge of Central Asia, had started these contacts in the mid- and late 1990s.

While these units had an immediate relevance to the war in Afghanistan, civilian public servants, the military, and analysts in the Pentagon and beyond have suggested that some of these units may be of use in the future action against terrorist organizations and regimes which support them. Off the record, the Pentagon officials have said that while the U.S. has not requested permanent basing rights in the region, its presence will be open-ended.[3] U.S. policy makers and officials have suggested different avenues of rationalization for the current and future presence. They named protecting energy resources and pipelines, deterring the resurrection of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, preventing Russian and/or Chinese hegemony, facilitating democratization and market reforms, and using Central Asia as a re-supply depot for possible action in Afghanistan, as preferred rationale for the U.S. presence. Moreover, Central Asia was mentioned as a launching pad for future operations against Iraq and Iran.[4] Most of these explanations are insufficient by themselves; however, it is possible that a combination of such policies does require at least a level of the U.S. military and political presence in the region. The size, scope, and duration of such a deployment is an issue to be defined by U.S. needs and the host countries' desires and capabilities.

Radical Islamist organizations, however, staunchly oppose American presence on any Muslim soil. One particular organization in Central Asia made a campaign against U.S. deployment there, and against local political leaders who allowed such deployment, the focus of its quest. This organization is Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami.


Hizb ut-Tahrir: An Emerging Threat to U.S.

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, global 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 the Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors, known as the "righteous caliphs."

The 9/11 terrorist attack taught the United States a painful lesson-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 jihadiorganizations, 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.[5]

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 it is expanding its operations to oil-rich Kazakhstan. Over 10,000 members are active in Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Indonesia.[6] At least 500 are already behind bars in Uzbekistan alone, and hundreds are in custody in the Middle East.[7] 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 (ummah) is so strong that Mohammad's close allies delayed burying his body until a new caliph was appointed and the caliphate established.[8] The caliphate would be led by a caliph, a supreme, pious leader who would combine religious and political power.[9] A caliph, an-Nabhani believes, is a substitute for Prophet 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.[10] Yet, some regional observers have called for the legitimization of Hizb and its integration into the existing political model.[11] In doing so, they ignore the obvious-Hizb's goal is to smash the existing state apparatus, not to become a player within it.

Radical Islamic Roots. Since its inception in 1952 in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, Hizb has gained tens of thousands of followers from London to Lahore.[12] 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.[13] An-Nabhani, who was serving at the time on the Islamic appellate court in Jerusalem, was an associate and contemporary of Hajj Amin's.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] Hizb was likely supported initially by the Saudi-based radical Islamist Wahhabi movement, although the extent to which that support continues today is unclear.[18]


Hizb ut-Tahrir's spread around the globe, in Western Europe and often in authoritarian states with strong secret police organizations, is an impressive feat. It could only be accomplished 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.

The Leninist Model. 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.[19] 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.[20] (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. 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.[21]

Hizb's platform and action fits 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.[22] Where radicalization has taken hold in the Islamic world, Hizb gains 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. Its 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, the murky funding sources, rejection of existing political regimes, rapid transnational growth, and shared outlook and goals with al-Qaeda and other organizations of the global jihadi movement.

Anti-Americanism. 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 sin.[23] In documents drafted before 9/11, Hizb leaders accused the United States of imposing hegemony on the world. After 9/11, Hizb claimed that U.S. has declared war against the global Muslim community (umma), has established an international alliance under the "pretext" of fighting terrorism, and is 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.[24] 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 you 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."[25]

In a June 2001 article published in the party's journal, Hizb ideologists claim that all methods are justified in the struggle against the Kufaar, including murder. Furthermore, they specifically mention that a pilot diving a plane hit by enemy fire into a crowd of Kufaar without bailing out with a parachute is a legitimate form of armed struggle. Furthermore, Hizb demanded that Muslims come to the support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

According to Hizb, the main targets of jihad-in addition to moderate Muslim regimes such as Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Uzbekistan-are America and the Jews.

America, Britain and their allies are leading a crusade in Afghanistan…These acts by America and Britain reflect their deep hostility toward the Muslim Ummah. It means that they are enemies. The relations between them and the Muslims constitute a state of war, and therefore, according to Islamic canons, all problems with regard to them should be dealt in accordance with war laws. This state of war also applies to countries that have formed an alliance with these two states.[26]

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…she 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.[27]

According to one of the Hizb Central Asian leaders,

[W]e 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.[28]

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.

Stages of Struggle, Jihad, and Violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir sees its struggle in parallel with the three stages that the Prophet Muhammad experienced en route to the establishment of the caliphate 1,400 years ago. These included 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. Similarly, Hizb divides its strategy into three stages:

  1. "Production of people who believe in the idea and the method of the Party so that they form the Party group" (recruitment and agitation, establishment of cells),
  2. "Interaction with the Ummah; to let the Ummah embrace and carry Islam" (Islamization), and
  3. "Establishing government, implementing Islam generally and comprehensively, and carrying it as a message to the world" (revolutionary takeover and jihad).[29]

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.[30] Despite its authoritarian and highly disciplined cadre structure, Hizb claimed that those members who participated in the coup did so in an "individual capacity." However, more recently, Hizb representatives together with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan participated in coordination meetings sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Numerous Middle Eastern countries and Germany, where Hizb is establishing links with the neo-Nazis, have taken steps to outlaw its activities. Moreover, the Party clearly states,

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 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.[31]

At this time, Hizb ut-Tahrir aims at seizing power and supplanting 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:

A struggle against Kufr (non-believer) states which have domination and influence over the Islamic countries. The challenge against colonialism in all its intellectual, political, economic, and military forms, involves exposing its plans, and revealing its conspiracies in order to deliver the Ummah from its control and to liberate it…[32]

A struggle against the rulers in the Arab and Muslim countries by exposing them, taking them to task, acting to change them whenever they have denied the rights of the Ummah or neglected to perform their duty towards her, or ignored any of her affairs, and whenever they disagreed with the rules of Islam, and acting also to remove their regimes so as to establish the Islamic rule in its place.[33]

Moreover, Hizb seeks to penetrate state structures and convert government officials and military officers into its creed. Its platform openly states that "the Party started to seek the support of the influential people with two objectives in mind:

  1. So that it could manage to continue its daw'ah (Islamic appeal) while secure from affliction
  2. To take over the rule in order to establish the Khilafah and apply Islam."[34]

Hizb has begun penetrating 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 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, group of countries, or 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 power centers in the region. 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, which could fall 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.[35]

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 economic growth rates. By governing so poorly and being intolerant and undemocratic, these regimes inadvertently breed religious extremism.[36]

In this environment, Hizb ut-Tahrir has captured a protest niche that otherwise would be occupied by the 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.


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 thirteen-year grand plan, but if it exists, this program is still unknown.

At inception, Hizb likely had strong connections to the 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 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia 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 is where he resides and the identity the senior officers of Hizb. Upon an-Nabhani's death, he was succeeded by Sheikh Abd-el Qadim Zaloom, another Palestinian cleric and a former professor of Al Azhar in Cairo.[37] Zaloom was with Hizb for 50 years and has died on April 29, 2003.[38] While anecdotal reports place the organization's headquarters in London and indicate that many European converts to Islam are staffing middle and senior levels of the organization, very little evidence confirms this. These 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. In order to develop a comprehensive strategy and counter Hizb's influence, the U.S. should:

  • Expand intelligence collection on Hizb ut-Tahrir. This needs to be done both in Western Europe and in outlying areas, such as Central Asia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Most important is information on state sponsorship, leadership, finances, intentions and capabilities, timelines, links with violent terrorist groups, and penetration of state structures. The U.S. intelligence community should work with the United Kingdom's MI5 and MI6 and with the intelligence services of Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Central Asian states. U.S. analysts and policy makers, however, should be aware that some of the regimes in question will attempt to portray Hizb as a terrorist organization with links to Osama bin Laden.[39]
  • Condition security assistance to Central Asia on economic reform. Hizb is growing in Central Asia due to the "revolution of diminishing expectations," increasing despair, and the lack of secular political space and economic opportunity in the region.[40] While some are attracted to Hizb's harsh version of radical Islam, others see it is as an outlet for their frustration with the status quo and an instrument for upward mobility. U.S. assistance to Central Asian countries, which has doubled since 9/11, has not changed the economic dynamics in the region, and most of the funds were understandably earmarked for security cooperation and military assistance.

To jump-start economic development, the Bush Administration should condition security assistance provided by the Pentagon 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.

  • Encourage democracy and popular participation. The scarcity of secular and moderate Islamic democratic politics and credible non-governmental organization (NGO) activities and the lack of freedom of expression may be driving thousands of young recruits to join Hizb in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan. There have been no democratic elections in the region for several years, and the opposition press is either non-existent or severely curbed. Hizb, as well as jihadiorganizations, recruit from among alienated students and urban youth, frustrated with the status quo and facing limited futures. 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 grass root initiatives may diminish the draw of the Hizb. According to a representative of a major U.S. NGO, some liberalization of the non-profit sector has been attained in the Central Asian countries after 9/11. This trend needs to be encouraged.[41]

The U.S. Agency for International Development 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.

  • Discredit radicals and encourage moderates. The U.S. should encourage local governments to not only crack down on radical Islam (as they already do), but also encourage alternatives. Uzbekistan has reportedly jailed hundreds of Hizbi activists. The Union of Councils' Central Asian Information Network has documented disappearances, 14 deaths in detention, and over 500 political prisoners in Uzbekistan.[42] Human Rights Watch claims that thousands of Central Asian prisoners could qualify as political, including many members of Hizb, who receive 15-17 year sentences for minor offenses such as leaflet distribution.[43]

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.[44] The Central Asian public needs to be directly exposed to traditional moderate local brands of Islam, Sufi mythical branches (Tariq'at), and reformist moderate JadidiIslam.

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, 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.[45] 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 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.

The conflict with radical Islam in Central Asia is far from over. While Islamic Front of Uzbekistan was militarily defeated, it is likely to grow back slowly, while Hizb remains popular despite government actions to eradicate it. The question is how the U.S. can support secular and moderate Islamic regimes and movements, foster tolerance, and promote freedom of expression and freedom of religion without being identified too closely with oppressive actions of Central Asian regimes? How can the U.S. defeat radical Islamists[46] in the realm of ideals, words, and symbols-not only on the battlefield?



Even if the war in Iraq is over, the United States finds itself still fighting a war of ideas, a war against those who want to destroy America's society and its core values. President George W. Bush recognized the necessity of engagement on this front in his National Security Strategy, which calls for the U.S. to "wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism" by:

·        Using the full influence of the United States and working closely with allies and friends to make clear that all acts of terrorism are illegitimate so that terrorism will be viewed in the same light as slavery, piracy, or genocide: behavior that no respectable government can condone or support and that all must oppose;

·        Supporting moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation;

·        Diminishing the underlying conditions that spawn terrorism by enlisting the international community to focus its efforts and resources on areas most at risk; and

·        Developing effective public diplomacy to promote the free flow of information and ideas to kindle the hopes and aspirations of freedom of those in societies ruled by the sponsors of global terrorism.[48]

This is a war in defense of everything that makes America so attractive to the rest of the world-freedom and equality, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. It is a war that the United States cannot afford to lose. Terrorism-the use of violence against civilians to achieve religious and political goals-threatens the very survival of American society.

As a Gallup poll has shown, large majorities in the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, are strongly anti-American and believe that the war in Afghanistan was wrong and that Arabs did not commit the 9/11 terrorist attacks.[49] The poll results released in February 2002 indicate that there is a large gap between reality and perceptions in the Islamic world and those of the West.

This testimony will examine the roots of the radical anti-American ideology which drives political Islam and justifies terrorist activities by its adherents. Furthermore, it will identify major threats emanating from the world of Islamist extremism and will offer the rationale as well as strategies for developing messages and institutional capabilities to engage in the battle for hearts and minds.


It is important to study and understand the adversaries in order to engage them intellectually.Credible spiritual and political alternatives to radical Islam already exist in the Middle East and in the Muslim emigrant communities around the world, and it is highly significant that the radical Islamists failed to obtain majority popular support even in the most devout Muslim countries. Only Afghanistan under the Taliban, Sudan, and possibly Iran can be considered fully Shari'a(Islamic law) states, while some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia are close to being ones. Expansion of the Shari'a was underway prior to September 11 in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Shari'a states tend to be more supportive of terrorists: Sudan and Afghanistan provided a safe haven to Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda, while Pakistan supported the Taliban. Funding and foot soldiers from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states are fueling Bin Laden's effort.[50]

Terror has deep ideological roots in the radical interpretations of Islam, which date back to the early Middle Ages. The extremist Kharajite sect (eighth century) and the Hashishin group (eleventh century) used assassinations to get rid of political enemies.[51]It manifested in the modern era with the Muslim Brotherhood (1929), and gave birth to the al-Qaeda network as well as to other Islamic terrorist organizations. According to the U.S. Department of State, these organizations include Hezballah (the Party of God), with branches in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza; Islamic Jihad; Hamas; the Gama'at al-Islamiyya of Egypt; the Pakistan-based terrorist organizations that are now attacking India; the Chechen faction led by Shamil Basaev and Hattab, which is connected to bin Laden and fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; the Islamic Front of Uzbekistan; and many others.[52]

The incitement of Islamic believers to hatred and violence, the plotting and the killing are all being done under the banner of jihad-holy war. "Jihad" has two main connotations: that of personal self-improvement (the greater jihad) and of armed warfare against the infidels (the lesser jihad).[53]Extremist Islamic clerics and terrorist leaders advocate the murder of innocent civilians and suicide bombings in the prosecution of jihad. The stakes are high: Nothing less than the creation of a modern day caliphate, a pan-Islamic nuclear-armed state, is the strategic goal. Bringing down moderate and pro-Western regimes in the Islamic world and replacing them with Islamic dictatorships is the interim objective. As militant Islamists have given themselves carte blanche to repress and kill those who challenge their political interpretations of the Quran, secular and moderate Islamic ideas, leaders, and regimes are under threat everywhere.The leaders of the jihadist movements-and their ideas-need to be to be effectively challenged and debunked in their own back yards if they are to be defeated.

Militant Islamist movements include tens of thousands of active members, hundreds of thousands of supporters, and millions of sympathizers throughout the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The advocates of terror are operating not just in the most radical Muslim countries, such as Iran or Sudan. U.S. allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even Western powers such as the United States itself, Great Britain, France, and Germany shelter some of the most extremist anti-Western elements. The ideological dimension of this conflict is important, as foreign governments as well as an extensive network of "charitable" contributors provide financial support, shelter, arms, and military training to the terrorists. Ideology is also key to the recruitment of new members.

Secular regimes-such as Saddam's Iraq, Syria, and Libya-also support terrorist organizations and use terrorism to further their political ends. For example, Syria shelters and supports Hezballah, Hamas, the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).


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Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center