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Central Asia: How Big A Threat Is Hizb ut-Tahrir? (Part 1)

As Central Asian governments continue their crackdown on unsanctioned Islamic groups they say pose a threat to regional security, the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which advocates a return to "pure" Islam and the creation of a region-wide Islamic state, is an elusive and mysterious target. Among the most feared Islamic networks in Central Asia, it is also, seemingly, the least understood. Operating in three-person groups, with only limited contact with other such "cells," Hizb ut-Tahrir's members are nearly impossible to tally, and their goals in the region are unclear. But hundreds, and possibly thousands, of them are filling the jails of Central Asia, despite little evidence the group has ties to more militant Islamic groups in the region. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at the origins of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia.

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- No one can say with any certainty how many members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement are active in Central Asia. But leaflets and other materials advocating the establishment of a vast Islamic caliphate, or empire, have appeared in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and, most recently, in southern Kazakhstan. For the governments of Central Asia -- deeply concerned over possible incursions by Islamic militant groups into the region -- the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda is a worrying trend.

John Schoeberlein, the director of Harvard University's Central Asia program, described Hizb ut-Tahrir's goals and appeal in the region. "First of all, it's a political organization primarily. And perhaps, secondarily, a religious one, although it's certainly on their agenda to promote the revival of religion and ultimately to achieve a caliphate -- that is, an Islamic state -- across the region. The goal is to work in the underground in opposition to the existing governments and ultimately to eliminate them. It's certainly the most influential, most widely popular political Islamic group in Central Asia," Schoeberlein said.

Hizb ut-Tahrir -- or "Freedom Party" -- has its roots in the Middle East in 1950s. Its original members were mainly Palestinians from Jordan and Syria, although the movement quickly found supporters in Egypt and North Africa as well. It is an orthodox movement that believes the sanctity of Islam was shattered soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and aims to return the religion to its original state of spiritual purity. Among its goals is the elimination of modern forms of government and imposing Sharia Islamic law throughout the Islamic world. But unlike other movements, like the Taliban and Wahhabism -- which likewise advocate a strict interpretation of Islam -- Hizb ut-Tahrir does not oppose modern technology, and uses VCRs, CDs, and the Internet to spread its message.

The movement first appeared in Central Asia in the early 1990s. Its penetration of the region is unclear, and its organization -- based on networks comprising three-person "cells" with only limited contact among one other -- make it difficult to estimate its size. Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to have upwards of 100,000 members in the area, but more modest assessments place the number at some several thousand. But regardless of its numbers, the group's impact is undeniable.

Journalist Ahmed Rashid, in his recently published book "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," writes that there are more members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the region's prisons than of any other movement. The movement even appears to have spread beyond Central Asia to the Caucasus: An Azerbaijan court last month sentenced six Hizb ut-Tahrir members to prison terms.

Peter Sinnott of Columbia University's School of International Affairs said the defining characteristic of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- and the reason it inspires such fear in the governments of the region -- is its secrecy. "The main characteristic of this organization is that it is very secretive. And people should keep in mind that in many ways that's the way Islam was preserved in the Soviet period," Sinnott said.

In their crackdown against radical Islamism in the region, the governments of Central Asia have consistently linked Hizb ut-Tahrir with groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. The IMU, which in recent years has staged armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, has already demonstrated it is prepared to use violence to achieve its goals, which, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, include the creation of an Islamic state.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has no such record of violence in Central Asia. But, Sinnott said, its shared goal of an Islamic caliphate makes it easy for the region's governments to link it to more radical groups like the IMU.

"What [Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU] are espousing in terms of Islam is more alike than different, and they are espousing, as I understand it, the renewal of an Islamic caliphate. And I think that this factor, which is similar to what the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were very much about, is the factor people are focusing on," Sinnott said.

There is little to demonstrate that Hizb ut-Tahrir advocates violent means to achieve its end of creating an Islamic caliphate. The U.S. State Department, which last year included the IMU in its list of world terrorist organizations, did not list Hizb ut-Tahrir. Schoeberlein of Harvard University agreed there is no reason to believe Hizb ut-Tahrir poses a danger, at least in any direct sense, to the governments of the region.

"The governments of the region have declared [Hizb ut-Tahrir] to be bent on violent overthrow of the government, but there's actually no good evidence that any Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been involved in violent acts," Schoeberlein said.

In fact, Schoeberlein said, Hizb ut-Tahrir "quite explicitly disavows violence as its means for achieving power."

(The Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)