Hizb-ut-Tahrir: The New Islamic State

By: Surinder Kumar Sharma, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

 

While the world's attention is fixed on the activities of the dangerous and ruthless Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or simply IS1), there is another militant organization worthy of serious attention. Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), or the Party of Liberation, is a radical Islamist group that, like IS, calls for the uniting of the Ummah and the return of the Caliphate.

HuT was founded in Jerusalem in 1952 by a Palestinian, Sheikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, with the help of Khalid al-Hassan, a founder of the militant Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Assad Tamimi, a spiritual leader of the Islamic jihad movement, both of whom became important leaders of the group.2 Although at the ideological level there is much in common between HuT and IS, the dramatic growth of IS, its highly publicized atrocities, and its rapid acquisition of territory could cause its own downfall if a US-led military coalition launches a military offensive against the group. In contrast, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a slow and steady player; it has cleverly avoided any intense global scrutiny while spreading its ideology and support base in different parts of the world. HuT, therefore, has the potential to become an even more dangerous terrorist group than IS.

IS may be trying to exploit a tendency noted by retired Major General Robert Scales in a recent Wall Street Journal article: "Western militaries fight short wars well and long wars poorly."3 But any apparent advantage from a protracted conflict could backfire for the al Qaeda breakaway group, as one analyst pointed out: "[The] Islamic State's fundamentals are weak, and it does not have a sustainable endgame."4 The same analyst went on to suggest that the group is getting more credit than it deserves and that its support among the local population is fairly superficial, making the group vulnerable to external interventions. Interestingly, the majority of individuals and entities who support IS also support HuT, raising questions about whether the eventual defeat of IS could result in the end of terrorism in Asia and elsewhere.

This is where HuT's strategy is different. With a reported presence in nearly 50 countries, it is slowly increasing its social capital by keeping away from overt acts of terrorism while luring the educated young with ideology. Headquartered in London, the group has branches in Central Asia, Europe, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, where it has managed to garner great influence. In South Asia, HuT has a significant presence in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Although HuT has reportedly found a foothold in India, its presence and influence have not made any significant impact. On its website, HuT claimed that it had organized a demonstration in 2010 at Batla House in Delhi in protest against Israel's alleged atrocities.5 The demonstration, which was attended by about 1,000 people, was HuT's last reported activity in India. HuT's growing presence in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan, however, should be a cause of concern for India and the larger global community.

The Bangladesh chapter, which started in 2001, is headed by Mohiuddin Ahmad, a professor at Dhaka University. It is important to note that the organization has been able to penetrate not only state-run educational institutions like Dhaka University, but also private establishments. It is worrisome that in Bangladesh, HuT has managed to gather the support of many intellectuals, including doctors, lawyers, and professors. HuT was officially banned in Bangladesh in 2009 for anti-state activities, apparently because of its possible involvement in the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny that took place the same year.6 During the mutiny, security forces arrested six HuT members who were carrying incendiary pamphlets. According to media reports, HuT had planned another mutiny in 2010 and is suspected to have been part of the foiled army coup in 2011 against Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.7 While there is no known case of HuT's direct involvement in any violent activity in Bangladesh, its growing support base could become a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism.

 

Compared to Bangladesh, HuT has a longer history in Pakistan, where it established its base in 1990. The group remained underground until 2000, when its cadres launched a massive publicity campaign through the distribution of leaflets promoting Ummah unity and the Caliphate near mosques in Islamabad, Lahore, and Rawalpindi. HuT considers Pakistan to be a suitable place for the seat of a future Caliphate (or Khilafat) due to its geo-strategic location and its rich natural and human resources. HuT's plans to establish an Islamic state propose three stages. The first involves educating the common people and indoctrinating the educated class; the second stage involves co-opting people who hold influential positions in the government, the military, and the civil service; and the third stage is the establishment of the Caliphate itself.

Pakistan banned HuT in 2003 after it was linked with several terror plots, including a plot to kill former President Pervez Musharraf.8 Media reports have since suggested that HuT has made several attempts to infiltrate the Pakistani Army in order to initiate the process of establishing a Caliphate. This suspicion was further supported by the arrests of five army officers for their HuT links. Despite the ban, the group is reportedly deepening its support among the intelligentsia and military circles.9

Another interesting aspect of HuT is that while it advocates a strict interpretation of Islam, it does not oppose modern technology and makes use of the internet to spread its ideology among educated youth. This seeming paradox is further reflected in how the outfit deals with sophisticated weapons, including bombs and land mines. HuT may not be directly involved in terrorist activities, but it approves the use of violence and armed force to achieve the Caliphate. According to media reports, HuT has an armed wing called Harakat ul-Muhojirinfi Britaniya that is training its cadres in chemical, bacteriological, and biological warfare.10

HuT's global ambition and activities are bankrolled through private donations from local entrepreneurs to Islamic charity organizations. Media reports suggest that members pay 10 percent of their incomes to the group. Wealthy sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, who embrace the pan-Islamic agenda, also fund the outfit. This financial support is one of the reasons that HuT believes it will be able to establish the Caliphate.

 

It is said that HuT commands a base of over one million members worldwide. This is far higher than what IS has claimed to have. HuT has its headquarters as well as a strong base of support in the United Kingdom and is also widespread in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, in which country alone its membership is estimated to range from 7,000 to 60,000. Reports claim that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 members each, while Kazakhstan has about 300 members.11 Although there are no credible estimates of the group's strength elsewhere, it undoubtedly has some presence in a number of other Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and Jordan.

Given the fact that HuT already has a wide reach and is successfully inducting and radicalizing educated youth, the outfit has the potential to stage coups and uprisings against governments and regimes that it considers un-Islamic or aligned with anti-Muslim powers. HuT may well prove dangerous because it has immense influence on people, especially in the way that it legitimizes the cause to establish a Caliphate. While the world's focus currently is on IS, it would be a
grave folly to ignore the growing influence of HuT and its global agenda.

About the Author(s):
Surinder Kumar Sharma is closely associated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, and is the co-author of the recently released book Militant Groups in South Asia (Pentagon Press, 2014).

Copyright 2015, Surinder K. Sharma. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paidup, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.


NOTES:
  1. Also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an "Islami khilafah" encompassing northeastern Syria and northern Iraq in 2014, ISIS rebranded itself as the Islamic State. 
  2. Mateen Siddiqui, "The Doctrine of Hizb ut Tahrir," in The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir: Deciphering and Combating Radical Islamist Ideology, ed. Zeyno Baran (Washington, D.C.: The Nixon Center, 2004), 1: http://www.cftni.org/Program%20Briefs/PB%202004/confrephiztahrir.pdf  
  3. Robert H. Scales, "The ISIS Way of War Is One We Know Well," Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2014: http://www.wsj.com/articles/robert-h-scales-the-isis-way-of-war-is-one-we-know-well-1410728762  
  4. Ramzy Mardini, "The Islamic State Threat Is Overstated," Washington Post, 12 September 2014: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-islamic-state-threat-is-overstated/2014/09/12/acbbebb2-33ad-11e4-8f02-03c644b2d7d0_story.html  
  5. Batla House, a residence in Delhi, was the site of a notorious 2008 police shootout with members of the Indian Mujahedeen. 
  6. "6 ‘Hizb-ut' Men Arrested with Leaflets on Mutiny," bdnews24.com, 2 March 2009: http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2009/03/02/6-hizb-ut-men-arrested-with-leaflets-on-mutiny  
  7. Saleem Samad, "Bangladesh: Coup Bid against Hasina Foiled," India Today, 28 January 2010: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/bangladesh-coup-bid-against-sheikh-hasina-foiled/1/170876.html  
  8. Although HuT professes to use only nonviolent means to achieve its goal of establishing a Caliphate, some of its members have been involved in terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. 
  9. See Qaiser Butt, "Alleged Militant Links: Military Trial of Brig Ali Khan Begins," Express Tribune, 12 February 2012: http://tribune.com.pk/story/335290/alleged-militant-links-military-trial-of-brig-ali-khan-begins/ ; Sahar Aman, "Protect Pakistan from Hizb ut-Tahrir," Express Tribune, 5 July 2011: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/6777/protect-pakistan-from-hizb-ut-tahrir/ ; Ayesha Umar, "Hizb ut-Tahrir in Pakistan," Newsline, 5 August 2011: http://www.newslinemagazine.com/2011/08/hizb-ut-tahrir-in-pakistan/ ; Zia ur Rehman, "Hizbut Tahrir: Organisation and Outreach," Friday Times, 19–25 August 2011: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20110819&page=5  
  10. "Hizb Is Violent," Hizb ut-Tahrir Watch (blog), 6 December 2010: https://thehizbuttahrirwatch.wordpress.com/category/news-about-hizb-ut-tahrir/hut-america/hizb-is-violent/ 
  11. Zeyno Baran, "Radical Islamists in Central Asia," in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, eds. Hillel Fradkin, Husain Haqqani, and Eric Brown, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Hudson Institute, 2005), 46: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1175/20060130_current_trends_v2.pdf  
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