By Sanchita Bhattacharya
The Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT, ‘Party of Liberation’), a global Islamist organization seeking the imposition of Shariah (Islamic Law) across the world, is growing into a major focus of concern in Bangladesh and Pakistan over the past years. Colonel T.M. Jobaer, Director of National Security Intelligence (NSI), Bangladesh, thus argues, “Of all the Islamic outfits, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is currently the biggest threat… The organisation is strong because it has a strong international agenda — it wants to establish a Khilafat (the Islamic Caliphate) in many countries”.
On October 12, 2011, nine HuT cadres were arrested in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, while they were trying to bring out a procession in front of the city’s Baitul Mukarram, the National Mosque, demanding the release of the outfit’s top leaders and the establishment of Khilafat rule in the country.
On June 21, 2011, the Pakistan Army arrested Brigadier Ali Khan at Rawalpindi over his alleged links with HuT. He had been picked up for questioning on May 6, 2011, but the arrest was announced on June 21. Pakistan’s military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, when asked to confirm, stated, “Yes, it is correct that he is under detention over his alleged links to the militant group Hizb-ul-Tahrir and an investigation is going on”.
A study conducted by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute claimed that HuT was slowly gaining ground and was currently the strongest force in anti-state activities in Bangladesh.
According to the partial data collected by the Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 278 HuT cadres have been arrested in these two countries since March 10, 2000 – 207 in Bangladesh and 71 in Pakistan. Some of the significant arrests included:
September 30, 2011: Three cadres of HuT were arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel in Dhaka, when they were distributing leaflets in front of Baitul Mukarram.
September 14, 2011: RAB-2 personnel arrested two cadres of HuT, identified as Towhidur Rahman (22) and Tariqul Hasan Ashiq (18), from a house in the Hajaribagh area of Dhaka city.
July 27, 2011: RAB arrested Mahmudul Bari, adviser of HuT (Bangladesh), from Shahjalal International Airport while he was trying to leave for Malaysia.
July 2, 2011: 18 HuT cadres were arrested from Paltan area in Dhaka City. RAB also arrested four from Jhikatola and Mohammadpur in Dhaka District.
July 3, 2011: Senior HuT member, Professor Dr. Sheikh Tawfique, was arrested in Dhaka.
June 6, 2011: RAB personnel arrested 27 cadres of HuT form Barakaw village of the Kaliganj Sub-district of Gazipur District in Bangladesh. They also recovered anti-State posters, leaflets and magazines, as well as books on jihad.
April 18, 2011: Police arrested 18 HuT cadres from Qartaba Chowk in Lahore, Pakistan. They were carrying out a protest march criticizing the United States (US) and Pakistan Governments.
July 8, 2010: The Detective Branch of Bangladesh Police arrested a Professor of Dhaka University, identified as Syed Golam Maola, who introduced the HuT into the country, from Dhaka’s Elephant Road area. Maola was accused in three cases filed with the Uttara Police Station in Dhaka, under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2009.
April 20, 2010: Police arrested HuT Bangladesh ‘chief coordinator’ Mahiuddin Ahmed from the capital, Dhaka. The HuT ‘second-in-command’ was also arrested by the Intelligence Wing of RAB, from his Mohammadpur house in Dhaka.
October 19, 2009: The Margalla Police raided the HuT office in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, and arrested 35 persons. The Police claimed to have recovered ‘sensitive’ material from the office.
May 4, 2009: Former Commanding Officer of Shamsi Air Force Base, Colonel Shaid Bashir, a retired Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Squadron Leader, Lawyer Nadeem Ahmad Shah, and US-educated mechanical engineer Awais Ali Khan were arrested for their connections with HuT and for leaking sensitive information to the outfit.
March 30, 2007: Police arrested 22 HuT cadres in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur area. The arrested militants were holding a secret meeting at a house on the third floor of a five-storied building at Aziz Mohalla in the area. Police recovered leaflets, posters, compact disks (CDs) and books from the house.
September 16, 2004: Three cadres of the HuT were arrested during separate raids in Lahore. The arrested activists, identified as Abdul Waheed, Bilal Saleem and Hakeem Yasir Rehman Jigranvi, were reportedly accused of distributing anti-state material.
HuT in Pakistan and Bangladesh are parts of the global Sunni political party, established in Jerusalem in the year 1953 by Taqi al-Din al-Nibhani, a Palestinian religious cleric, with the aim of replacing the then colonial regime of Jordan with Islamic rule. The current global leader of HuT is Shaykh Ata Abu Rashta, a Palestinian civil engineer.
At the global level, HuT has extended its presence into 45 countries. However, it is banned in virtually all Arab nations in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and in Turkey; in South Asia in Pakistan and Bangladesh; in all the former Soviet States in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan; and also in Russia. In Europe, it has been banned in Germany and in the Netherlands. The Governments of United Kingdom (UK) and Australia are also under pressure to ban the outfit.
HuT claims to be a non-violent organization, seeking
- to establish a community of like-minded HuT members in its host countries
- to build public opinion in one or more host countries to facilitate change of Government
- to establish a new Government based on the Shariah as a political entity under an international Caliphate in all Islamic and non-Islamic countries.
The HuT in Pakistan and Bangladesh have established themselves as well-known Islamic political outfits. As a part of the international Islamist brigade HuT has gained widespread support, not only from religious clerics and elements within the military, but also among doctors, teachers, lawyers and businessmen, on the political platform against the prevailing ‘un-Islamic’ and corrupt political set-up. HuT claims it seeks to establish ‘clean’ politics in these countries, but has not been averse to provoking political skirmishes between its cadres and other political formations.
A typical feature of HuT is the presence of western educated cadres in the organization, who help propagate anti-government and pro-Islamist ideas through their writings, try to attract young students from various colleges and universities. In Pakistan, HuT sponsored protest activities have attracted students of Punjab University, the University of Karachi, and other prominent colleges and universities. HuT-Bangladesh cadres from Dhaka University, Chittagong University, Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology, among others, have been involved in various anti-State demonstrations and protests.
Notwithstanding its claims to be a non-violent organisation, HuT does have a clandestine violent face. In June 2001, in its Arabic language magazine, Al-Waie, (‘Consciousness’), published from Beirut, HuT stated clearly that it is acceptable to carry out suicide attacks with explosive belts. In an article on “Martyrdom Operations”, HuT gave its own fatwa on suicide attacks:
…all ways and means which a Muslim uses to kill unbelievers are permitted as long as the enemy unbeliever is killed — whether they are killed by weapons from afar or if their ranks are penetrated; whether their stronghold is captured and penetrated before their eyes, or whether you blow up their planes or shoot them down; or whether you blow yourself up amongst their military encampments or blow yourself and them up with a belt of explosives. All of these are permissible means of fighting unbelievers.
Articulating the organisation’s wider ideological position, on December 17, 2010, HuT-Pakistan issued an open letter titled “O Muslims! Deliver This Letter to All the Sincere Ones Whom You Know in Pakistan’s Armed Forces,” accusing Pakistani rulers of bowing before the U.S. and India. The letter stated, “But rather than working to end the oppressive Hindu rule, Pakistan’s traitor rulers have worked to strengthen it, for the sake of America, who seeks to woo India into its influence, to counter China and any Khilafah that arises.”
Similarly, on April 3, 2010, the official website of HuT-Bangladesh stated, “O Muslims! Sheikh Hasina is handing you over to crusader America and polytheist India; overthrow her treacherous government before she succeeds… Crusader America and polytheist India reached a compromise whereby America will instruct the rulers in the region (especially Pakistan and Bangladesh) to solve the long standing issues with India which will free India’s hands and then these two enemies of Islam can develop their partnership to consolidate their foothold in the region.”
Terrorist connections and proclivities to armed violence are also visible in the HuT’s global operations. On October 17, 2011, a provincial court in Tajikistan sentenced four men to prison terms after finding them guilty of HuT membership. The court sentenced Yakhekhon Rakhmonkhujaev and Abdunabi Abdulkodirov, said to be leaders of the organization in northern Tajikistan, to 20 years in prison. The two other defendants were sentenced to 22 years in prison because they were arrested along with weapons and narcotics. Earlier, on February 7, 2011, eight alleged members of the HuT had been detained in Kyrgyzstan’s southern region of Osh.
It was reported on May 14, 2010, that the Russian Federal Security Service uncovered an underground terrorist cell of HuT, which had links with Chechen militants.
On April 15, 2010, Golam Mostafa a Bangladeshi-born British citizen and the UK Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) unit chief, was arrested in Sylhet in Bangladesh for his involvement in financing extremist groups and attempts to reorganize terrorist formations in the region. Later, Mostafa admitted to interrogators that he maintained contacts with Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and HuT leaders to inquire about funds he sent for Islamist militancy.
On September 29, 2008, Daily Star received a fax dated September 18, 2008, sent in the name of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) that apparently acknowledged HuT as its ‘front organisation’ and asked the Government and all law enforcement agencies to refrain from harassing its leaders and activists.
The four Pakistani origin London subway suicide bombers of July 7, 2007, were reportedly indoctrinated in London by extremists belonging to militant groups including Al-Mohajiroun and HuT. Asif Mohammed Hanif, the terrorist who blew himself up in a cafe in Tel Aviv (Israel) on April 29, 2003, and his accomplice and would-be bomber, Omar Khan Sharif, were British-born Muslims affiliated with HuT.
In 2003, the HuT was accused of being involved in an assassination attempt against former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf. On August 21, 2011, Dawn quoted a former HuT man, Majid Nawaz, as stating that the HuT does not discount the use of violence through ‘converted’ military men (won over by HuT ideologies) in its goal of toppling the Pakistan Government and the military’s top leadership to ‘establish a Khilafah state’.
The HuT formally arrived in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the year 2000, with 9/11 and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan acting as a catalyst to get a strong hold in these countries. Pakistan’s chapter of HuT was formally founded in November 2000, although a number of Pakistanis had joined the group outside Pakistan over the preceding decades. The founding members of HuT-Pakistan were mostly Pakistani expatriates from relatively successful families. According to some reports, the founders of HuT-Pakistan, included Imtiaz Malik, a British youth of Pakistani descent, Dr. Abdul Wajid and Dr. Abdul Basit Shaikh. Imtiaz Malik is presently considered to be the underground leader of HuT-Pakistan. Naveed Butt remains the public face of the group in the country, and is assisted by two youth, Imran Yusufzai and Shahzad Sheikh.
HuT-Bangladesh was established under the leadership of Syed Golam Maola, along with Nasimul Gani and Kawsar Shahnewaz, each of whom had a British education. Nasimul and Shahnewaz, after returning to Bangladesh in 2000, set up an office at a coaching centre at Dhanmondi in Dhaka, for the organisation’s Bangladesh chapter, and launched the group’s activities under Maola’s leadership.
Meanwhile, HuT’s covert linkages with the Pakistani and Bangladeshi military have also in failed efforts to orchestrate military coups. In July, 2009, HuT-Pakistan was reported to have been preparing a coup to topple the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari and to establish a Caliphate under strict Islamic code. On July 5, 2009, The Sunday Times noted,
British militants are pushing for the overthrow of the Pakistani state. Followers of the fundamentalist group Hizbut-Tahrir have called for a ‘bloodless military coup’ in Islamabad and the creation of the caliphate in which strict Islamic laws would be rigorously enforced. Shahzad Sheikh, a Pakistani recruit and the group’s official spokesman in Karachi, talked openly about persuading the army to instigate a ‘bloodless coup’ against the present government who, he said, were ‘worse than the Taliban’.
The arrests of Armed Forces personnel in connection with HuT also demonstrate the gradual percolation of HuT ideologies in the Pakistani military establishment. In Bangladesh, during the Pilkhana Mutiny of February 2009, HuT tried to capitalise on the discontent among Army personnel caused by the killing of 57 Army officials at the hands of Paramilitary troopers during the mutiny. Investigators disclosed that HuT operatives distributed leaflets bearing Jaago Muslim Senabahini Jaago (‘Rise up the army of Muslims’) slogan in and around the Bangladesh Rifles Headquarters after the February 25-26 mutiny.
On October 22, 2009, HuT was banned in Bangladesh by the Sheikh Hasina Government. Home Minister Sahara Khatun stated, “The organization (HuT) has been banned as it has been carrying out anti-State, anti-Government, anti-people and anti-democratic activities for long in the country”. However, since the ban followed a bomb-blast (on October 21) in Dhaka City, there was immediate speculation that the outfit was directly or indirectly involved in the incident.
HuT-Pakistan was banned on November 11, 2003, by the then President Pervez Musharraf regime. The Interior Ministry of Pakistan banned HuT following the attempt to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf on December 25, 2003. The ban in Pakistan has been under dispute for long. A petition was filed in Lahore High Court by HuT-Pakistan spokesperson Naveed Butt in early 2006, challenging the ban. HuT has maintained that the notification issued against it was illegal and should be set aside “as members of the political organisation and their families are being harassed, detained and framed in fake criminal cases”. The petition was to be taken up for hearing on September 12, 2011. However, no further details are available. Meanwhile, on August 2, 2011, authorities in Pakistan’s Punjab province barred 23 banned organizations, including HuT, from collecting donations for their activities. The Punjab Government warned that those found providing donations or aid to the banned organizations would be charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
HuT is a global Islamist organisation with strong regional linkages in South Asia. Apart from its presence in Bangladesh and Pakistan, it is increasingly visible in India. Surprisingly, the major financial support for HuT in South Asia comes from the expatriate Muslim population residing in UK. While sustained action by the Sheikh Hasina regime in Bangladesh appears to have stalled HuT expansion, at least for the time being, the organization continues to flourish in Pakistan – feeding on strong sectarian antipathies and the cumulative radicalization of the population over decades. In India, its roots appear to be strengthening in the absence of political clarity and a clear mandate to security and enforcement agencies regarding how the group is to be tackled. HuT’s radical ideology, the propagation of hatred against ‘infidels’ and ‘deviants’, and the flirtation with violence and terrorism hold significant potential dangers within the far from stable South Asian environment.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management