Pakistan is cracking down on the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. So why is it allowed to operate freely in the United States and Britain?
Pakistan wants the world to know that it is finally cracking down on Islamist extremists — at least, some of them. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, approved the arrest last month of Brig. Gen. Ali Khan for links to the proscribed Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the army is now interrogating four majors for their connections to Khan.
Coming after the revelation that Osama bin Laden was residing in a Pakistani garrison town and widespread allegations of collusion between the Taliban and its intelligence services, Pakistan’s focus on the self-styled "Party of Liberation" may come as a surprise. But Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ambitions in South Asia — and to some extent the success of its decade-long focus on Pakistan and its neighbors — make it a legitimate threat to the stability of the Pakistani state.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a typical South Asian Islamist group — its origins lie in the heart of Middle Eastern anti-colonialism. Founded in Jordan in 1952 by the Palestinian exile Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, the movement called for Arab unity based on Islamic principles. This revolutionary party operates in more than 40 countries worldwide. It openly seeks to establish an expansionist state ruled by one leader, the caliph.
At present, no state — even Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia — meets the party’s ideological criteria. The world’s countries are instead labelled Dar al-Kufr, the land of disbelief, which should rightfully be transformed into Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam. The Dar al-Islam/Kufr construct provides the caliphate with the authority to annex all Muslim-majority countries, and impose its intolerant brand of sharia as state law. If a Muslim country resists, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s manifesto, The Ummah’s Charter, dictates: "The state must rise to declare jihad against the kuffar [disbelievers] without any lenience or hesitation."
The manifesto also sanctions Muslims to engage in jihad in "occupied Islamic lands." Israel falls under this definition, according to Hizb ut-Tahrir’s global leader, Ata Abu Rishta, a fact that he says justifies the murder of Israeli Jews. An article entitled "Martyrdom Operations" in a June 2001 Hizb ut-Tahrir magazine, Al-Waie, suggested tactics such as suicide bombings and hijacking Israeli planes,
Despite this, Hizb ut-Tahrir has always claimed its methods are non-violent and instead focus on what it calls "political struggle." To this end, the group seeks to build support from within military elites in order to engender military coups — the party’s preferred method to establish the caliphate. Coup attempts in Jordan 1968, 1969 and 1971, as well as in southern Iraq in 1972, all failed.
South Asia and Pakistan in particular have been a special focus of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities since the mid-1990s. While Hizb ut-Tahrir officials in Pakistan refused to confirm whether Khan was a member of the organization, they openly affirmed that their goal is to reach those "that are shaking the power corridors."
According to Rashad Ali, a former leading member of the British branch, Khan’s arrest is a sign that the party is repeating the same mistakes of the past. "The failure of the Hizb to take power after gaining a brief spell of support is playing itself out again, as it did in the Middle Eastern countries in the 60s and 70s," he said.
Khan is not the first Pakistani soldier to be arrested for alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. In January 2010, a military court in Pakistan indicted two army colonels, a former Air Force pilot, and an engineer for belonging to the party. The colonels were accused of providing sensitive information about military installations to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the other two were accused of planning to commit acts of sabotage at an Air Force base in Baluchistan.
According to Abdul Qadeem Zallum, a former global leader of the organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s focus on Pakistan stems from its possession of nuclear weapons. In 2008, Hizb ut-Tahrir encouraged the army to attack the United States, stating that since Pakistan possessed "nuclear weapons, missiles technology and half a million brave soldiers who are ready to attain martyrdom for Islam, [it] is in a good position to injure and bruise an already battered America." In the days following the assassination of bin Laden, the group reportedly distributed leaflets in Pakistani military bases calling on officers to establish the caliphate.
As Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Pakistan, Britain is key to the party’s operations in South Asia. The party draws on Britain’s large Muslim population of South Asian descent, and focuses its recruitment on exploiting perceived grievances — Kashmir, Indian "hegemony", and American "neocolonial" influence. Former members claim that British party members were called upon by the global leadership in the late 1990s to help establish a Pakistan branch of the party, which was set up under the direction of Imtiaz Malik, a British-born Pakistani who is believed to be operating covertly in the country. British members have been planted in Pakistan’s main cities, and Hizb ut-Tahrir leadership in Pakistan still contains a number of British Pakistanis.
The group’s strategy in the United States and Europe remains the creation of a monolithic Muslim bloc — model Islamist communities living amidst, but apart from, Western populations — that will eventually serve the party’s larger goals of worldwide Islamist revolution. This summer, Hizb ut-Tahrir will hold annual conferences in both Britain and the United States. While the party does not enjoy the same level of support in Britain as it did during the first years of the "war on terror," the conference will likely be attended by a few thousand followers. They will gather to hear the senior leadership repeat the party’s message that, whether the issue is the world economic crisis or the Arab Spring, the only solution to problems in Muslim-majority countries is the creation of an Islamist state.
Though the Pakistani military boasts of a "zero tolerance policy" toward Hizb ut-Tahrir, Britain takes a more sanguine view of the organization. In 2004, the Foreign Office said it had "yet to see convincing evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir as an organisation advocates violence or terrorism." Before coming to power, the Conservatives promised to ban the group immediately, but have since realized such a step is impossible. Current anti-terrorism legislation prohibiting the glorification of terrorism is not retroactive, and Hizb ut-Tahrir uses euphemistic language in the West to disguise its support for jihad.
The party uses its ability to operate with impunity in Britain to plan to expand its authority in South Asia. Former members claim there are established committees that focus on recruiting students of Bangladesh, Pakistan and, more recently, Indian descent living in Britain, so they may continue Hizb ut-Tahrir’s agenda upon their return. Recognizing its enemy India’s relative military strength, Hizb ut-Tahrir is also concentrating on Bangladesh — whose army reserves, when coupled with Pakistan’s, could potentially shift the balance of power on the subcontinent. Former British members of the party claim that, by developing a presence in India, the party aims to subvert India’s large Muslim-minority population against the state.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has been recruiting in Pakistan for more than a decade. "They will call for secession within the military," Rashad Ali said. While its presence is not strong enough to make a wholesale takeover of Pakistan viable, it could lay the groundwork for increased chaos, he warns. "Pakistan’s population has already suffered over 2,000 terrorist attacks in the last year and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideology provides justification for jihadist activities."
Hizb ut-Tahrir is also exploiting bin Laden’s recent assassination for political mileage against the Pakistani state. Taji Mustafa, the group’s media representative in Britain, recently said on the London-based satellite station the Islam Channel: "What next? Is anybody safe? This shows the treachery of the Pakistani government, and this is how people see it, that, you know, nobody’s safe in Pakistan from America."
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s tactics may be flexible, but its endgame is not. The party remains wedded to its dream of a totalitarian caliphate, and is prepared to use military force to achieve it. Though Hizb ut-Tahrir will most likely fall short of its goal in Pakistan, its pernicious ideology will undoubtedly contribute to the country’s social and political fragmentation.