The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s mysterious menace

A curious thing happened two weeks ago in the militancy-ravaged Pakistani city of Peshawar. An anti-terrorism court sentenced a man named Muhammad Saeed to two years in prison. His crime? Distributing pamphlets critical of the Pakistani army and election commissioner. Pakistan is a nation where anti-state insurgents and sectarian militants murder civilians with savage regularity ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

A curious thing happened two weeks ago in the militancy-ravaged Pakistani city of Peshawar.

An anti-terrorism court sentenced a man named Muhammad Saeed to two years in prison. His crime? Distributing pamphlets critical of the Pakistani army and election commissioner.

Pakistan is a nation where anti-state insurgents and sectarian militants murder civilians with savage regularity — yet are rarely arrested, much less prosecuted. It’s also a nation where terrorist leaders live free and are protected by the state.

And yet Saeed received two years’ imprisonment simply for passing out anti-state literature.

Stranger still, Saeed belongs to a global Islamic organization that embraces nonviolence and boasts a Pakistan-based membership numbering only in the hundreds-represented mainly, purportedly, by academics, engineers, and other seemingly innocuous educated elites.

Tellingly, in recent months other Pakistan-based members of this organization, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), have suffered fates similar to Saeed’s. They’ve been arrested for hanging anti-government banners and handing out leaflets urging Pakistanis to boycott elections. They’ve even been jailed for violating the country’s sedition law. Last year, the organization’s spokesman in Pakistan, Naveed Butt, went missing. HuT says he was abducted by intelligence agents.

So what gives?

For starters, one can reasonably argue that HuT actually constitutes a considerable threat — thereby justifying the draconian measures against its members.

HuT vows to overthrow, via bloodless revolution, democratic governments worldwide — and then establish a global caliphate. This campaign is to be orchestrated not by the masses, but by educated, affluent professionals and senior-level military officers — strategically-placed elites with the capacity and clout to effect change. HuT has launched recruitment efforts at prestigious Pakistani universities, and earlier this year, according to Pakistani and Western media reports, activists descended on a Pakistani youth leadership conference at the University of Oxford to influence the discussions and disseminate marketing materials. Officers have also reportedly been recruited at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy.

And this recruitment strategy has apparently worked. Last year, 19 engineers, professors, and scientists were arrested in an affluent Lahore neighborhood for alleged ties to HuT. In recent years, senior military officials — including a former Air Force base commanding officer and a Major-rank security officer for former president Pervez Musharraf — have been arrested as well. Last year, five army officers — including a brigadier named Ali Khan — received jail sentences for their links to HuT. 

Another troubling aspect of HuT is its belligerent rhetoric, which belies its assurances of nonviolence. A pamphlet in Indonesia has depicted a decapitated Statue of Liberty flanked by a Manhattan skyline in flames. In Pakistan, official statements speak of "shattering the ribs" of traitors, and of military commanders leading "noble armed forces to the conquest of India." HuT’s views are often indistinguishable from those of violent militant organizations — and are quite distinct from more moderate global Islamist outfits like the Muslim Brotherhood. A recent press release, for example, blames America for last month’s deadly church bombing in Peshawar, contending that Washington is "punishing" Pakistanis for refusing to support "the American occupation in Afghanistan."     

Then there are HuT’s activities in neighboring nations. New Delhi has accused HuT of providing "intellectual and often financial assistance" to the Indian Mujahideen, an indigenous militant organization. Dhaka linked HuT to an unsuccessful 2012 coup attempt, and has since arrested university students for HuT ties. Moscow describes HuT as an "international terrorist organization," and has even blamed the group for organizing attacks on civilians. Finally, officials often accuse HuT of fomenting hatred in Central Asia — a critical region in this story, given that analysts allege links between Pakistan’s HuT chapter and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist organization that claims to be fighting Pakistan’s government.

Not surprisingly, Pakistani security officials have painted a disturbing picture of HuT, a banned organization in the country. One intelligence official, speaking to a Pakistani newspaper, says it has a "potentially far more destructive method of operation" than al-Qaeda. The official, who was not identified, added that HuT members "target minds instead of strategic installations and personnel, using the power of the intellect instead of roadside bombs." No wonder Pakistan cracks down so hard.

Yet there’s likely another reason: Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, one of Islamabad’s chief sources of military and economic assistance.

Washington regards Islamabad as either unwilling or unable to wage an all-out assault on extremism — especially because several militant groups have ties to the Pakistani security establishment.

Enter HuT. Unlike the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), HuT has never been sponsored by the Pakistani state. And unlike the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), HuT does not use violence. In other words, it is neither a trusted proxy nor an active combatant. This allows Islamabad to demonstrate to Washington, without strategic or tactical obstacles, that it can and does take robust action against militant threats. It’s an easy way to impress its American benefactor.

Consider that Khan, the officer convicted for HuT ties, was arrested four days after U.S. special forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Khan’s detention can be interpreted as assurance to the Americans that despite the bin Laden debacle, Pakistan remains serious about apprehending militants.

Similarly, according to his supporters, HuT spokesman Butt disappeared on May 11, 2012 — four days before Pakistani and American officials announced an "imminent" deal to reopen NATO supply routes in Pakistan, which Islamabad had closed the previous November after NATO aircraft accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. This announcement came just after the United States agreed to invite then-President Asif Ali Zardari to Chicago for a NATO summit on Afghanistan — an invitation Islamabad would describe as "critical" for a supply lines deal. Certainly Butt’s seizure alone didn’t prompt Washington’s invitation to Zardari, but it nonetheless could have been a factor (the supply routes would reopen in July, after Washington apologized for the deadly airstrikes).

Skeptics may argue, with reason, that Islamabad, in its zeal to demonstrate its countermilitancy bona fides, inflates the threat posed by HuT. The sensational charges originally leveled against Khan — planning to have the Pakistani Air Force bomb a corps commanders’ conference so that HuT could swoop in and implement Islamic rule — were eventually dropped. In the end, he was convicted on more vague charges of "links with a banned organization." Khan has consistently denied any guilt. It also bears mentioning that the most alarmist assessments of HuT in Pakistan — including one describing it as "a potentially more potent threat" than the TTP — are expressed through anonymous quotations in media reports, and not through public statements.

Furthermore, few if any serious charges against HuT have been proven in other countries — from the Bangladesh coup allegations and Indian Mujahideen links to its reputed strength in the Caucuses (independent analysts actually say HuT has committed few if any attacks in Uzbekistan, and enjoys "virtually no support" in Turkmenistan).

So perhaps HuT should ultimately be seen not as a destructive threat, but as an ultra-conservative and bellicose gadfly: more likely to disrupt conferences or, as seen in recent days, protest the Miss World beauty competition than to take up arms and pull off putsches. At least for now.

Still, given Pakistan’s nuclear status and pathological instability, HuT’s presence and activities in the country are troubling — and Islamabad’s emphatic countermeasures are therefore laudable. If only Pakistan could be as vigilant toward the murderous TTP and LeJ as it is toward the likes of Muhammad Saeed, the hapless HuT member jailed for passing out pamphlets.

Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached via email at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

Michael Kugelman writes Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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