The September 11 terrorist attack taught the United States government a painful lesson — it must be alert to emerging threats, including terrorism 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 pro-American regimes, such as in Central Asia.
U.S. government should be taking a close look at Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation). A clandestine, cadre-operated, global radical Sunni political organization that operates in 40 countries around the world, with headquarters apparently in London, Hizb was in the headlines recently, when Germany banned its activities and Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested 55 alleged members and over 60 “supporters.”
Is Hizb ut-Tahrir an emerging threat to American interests in Central and South Asia and the Middle East? Analysts note the increasingly militant rhetoric, participation of Hizb fighters in the coups in the Arab world and on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and explosives and weapons found when Hizb members are arrested.
Hizb’s proclaimed goal is Jihad against America and the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a Califate (Khilafah in Arabic), a theocratic dictatorship based on the Sharia (religious Islamic law). The model for Hizb is the “righteous” Califate, an Islamic state that existed in the seventh and eighth centuries under the Prophet Mohammed and his first four successors, known as the “righteous Califs.”
Hizbut-Tahrir’s spread around the globe over the last five decades, in Western Europe and often in authoritarian states with strong secret police organizations, is an impressive feat of beating security. It could only be accomplished by applying 20th century totalitarian political “technology” melded with Islamic notions of the seventh and eighth centuries, as interpreted by medieval Islamic scholars. 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. The achievement of Hizb founder Tariquddin 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, Hizb is similar to the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement. Its candidate members become well-versed in party 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. When a critical mass of cells is achieved, according to its doctrine, Hizb may move to take over a country to establish the Califate. 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 is already justifying its use — just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did — when “circumstances” dictate that.
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. Where radicalization has taken hold in the Islamic world, Hizb gains new supporters in droves.
Hizb’s primary characteristics include the fiery rhetoric of Jihad, the murky funding sources, rejection of existing political regimes, and shared outlook and goals 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. Hizb claimed that the U.S. accused Osama bin Laden of being responsible for the September 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.
To prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir from destabilizing Central Asia and other areas, the Bush administration may pursue a number of policy options. U.S. is considering expanding intelligence collection on the organization. This is likely to be done both in Western Europe and in outlying areas, such as Central Asia, Pakistan and Indonesia. A recent visit to Washington of the German Interior Minister Otto Schile may be a step in this direction.
Washington is also getting irritated with the glacial pace of economic reform in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan. U.S. may 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.
To jump-start economic development, the Bush administration may 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.
U.S. will further encourage democracy and popular participation. The scarcity of secular and moderate Islamic democratic politics and credible nongovernmental organization (NGO) activities and the lack of freedom of expression may be driving thousands of young recruits to join Hizb in Central Asia.
U.S. will expand cooperation with moderate and secular governments in the Muslim world to 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.
The United States has important national security interests at stake in Central Asia, Indonesia and Pakistan, 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. A Hizb takeover of any key 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 will do everything possible to avoid such an outcome.
Ariel Cohen is research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of “The Road to Economic Prosperity for Post-Saddam Iraq.”