Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, one of the most secretive fundamentalist Islamic organizations, has been active in Central Asia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although the group has never been involved in any violent actions, it is being fiercely repressed by regional governments, which consider its radical ideology a major threat. Hizb ut-Tahrir suffered a major blow last week when Russian authorities arrested dozens of its members in Moscow.
Prague, 10 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), yesterday said it had arrested 121 illegal immigrants suspected of having ties with the banned radical Sunni Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami.
The arrests -- the largest swoop yet on the organization within the CIS -- were conducted on 6 June at a Moscow research plant where the suspects were reportedly hiding from police and immigration authorities.
A statement posted today on the FSB website says 55 of the detainees have been identified as supporters or militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Among them are Alisher Musayev of Kyrgyzstan and Akram Jalolov of Tajikistan, whom the FSB suspects of being the leaders of the dismantled cell.
Moscow media reports say hand grenades, explosives, and ammunition were found on both men, as well as Islamic propaganda leaflets.
Chenara Asanova, a spokeswoman for Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry, today denied Musayev is a Kyrgyz national.
FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko yesterday said the arrests had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg and claimed Hizb ut-Tahrir has a network of cells covering all of Russia.
"[This organization] covers all the regions of the Russian Federation. What we have uncovered in the present case is just one link in the chain. In the future, we will continue our search in conjunction with the Interior Ministry. To that effect, we have set up a joint investigation team, and I think we will also continue our operations in conjunction with our partners in foreign special services," Ignatchenko said.
FSB footage broadcast on Russian television yesterday showed dozens of young men, some dressed only in their underwear, lined up against a brick wall under the guard of armed men in camouflage. Other footage showed some of the explosives and weapons allegedly seized during the operation.
Most of the detainees are reportedly Central Asians, although Russia's Itar-Tass news agency yesterday quoted Ignatchenko as saying there were some Slavs and Arabs among them.
Russian media have widely speculated about the purported activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Moscow. Russia's RTR state television channel yesterday reported that the dismantled cell was being funded by Uzbek-owned refreshment stalls and that its main aim was to recruit mercenaries with a view to sending them to the Northern Caucasus and other former Soviet regions.
The Moscow-based "Izvestiya" newspaper today writes that the arrested militants were participating in a plot aiming at "establishing an Islamic state in Russia," while the gazeta.ru electronic daily claimed they were preparing terrorist attacks against the presidents of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan.
None of these claims could be confirmed.
The two suspected leaders of the dismantled cell have reportedly been charged with illegal possession of weapons. Russian media today speculated that detainees not tightly linked with Hizb ut-Tahrir could soon be extradited to their respective home countries.
The FSB has long accused Hizb ut-Tahrir of links with separatist fighters and alleged Arab mercenaries combating Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. It now claims the group was recently joined by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a radical Central Asian-based Islamic organization. The IMU is linked to the Taliban religious militia and was also routed during the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
In February, the Russian Supreme Court put Hizb ut-Tahrir and 14 other groups on a list of banned terrorist organizations. A month before, Hizb ut-Tahrir was outlawed in Germany on charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli propaganda.
The origins and history of Hizb ut-Tahrir are murky, but regional experts generally say the group first appeared in the 1950s in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Its expansion into Central Asia coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Hizb ut-Tahrir now has its main base in Western Europe, but it has large followings in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, as well as in China's traditionally Muslim Xinjiang Province. Most of its members are believed to be ethnic Uzbeks.
The ultimate goal of this secretive, almost sectarian, group is to unite the entire ummah, or Islamic world community, into a single caliphate.
A statement posted on Hizb ut-Tahrir's website says its aim is "to bring the Muslims back to living an Islamic way of life in 'Dar al-Islam' [the land where the rules of Islam are being implemented, as opposed to the non-Islamic world] and in an Islamic society such that all life's affairs in society are administered according to the Shariah rules."
Hizb ut-Tahrir has long claimed it wants to achieve its objectives through nonviolent means and has so far not been involved in any known terrorist activities. Yet, in the view of many Islam experts, it remains a radical organization.
Olivier Roy, a Central Asian affairs specialist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, said at a roundtable recently held at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague, that the group is a source of many problems for those countries from which it operates.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir has never been involved in violent actions. They are very radical in ideological terms, but they did nothing in terms of terrorism. Hence the [question]: Why repress them if they are not involved in violence? [However], Hizb ut-Tahrir is not against violence as such. It is against the use of violence now. But they still think jihad [holy war] is a positive [concept]," Roy said.
Roy said one of the main problems posed by Hizb ut-Tahrir is that, unlike more traditional Islamic parties, it is supranational and refuses to be involved in local politics. Therefore, he says, it is impossible for regional leaders to co-opt the group, as happened with the former Islamic opposition in Tajikistan.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a political party in the sense that it does not want to participate in national politics. It does not want to go for elections. It does not want to be part of [any] coalition government. It even does not want to establish an Islamic state, [say] in Uzbekistan," Roy said.
Human rights experts believe that hundreds of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir have been jailed in Central Asian countries and dozens in Azerbaijan in recent years. In Uzbekistan alone, rights groups say, heavy prison sentences were handed down to an average of 50 Islamic activists a month in 1999 and 2000.
The relative decrease in arrests that followed is explained by the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir went underground to avoid persecutions.
But in its 2003 World Report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch nongovernmental organization noted that Uzbek President Islam Karimov's intolerance of the group "seemed to catch on with Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik authorities, who stepped up their repression of the group, arresting, trying, and convincing dozens of members for distributing leaflets and other nonviolent activities."
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)