There are indications that internal differences over strategy and tactics are threatening the cohesion of the underground radical Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Central Asia. Internecine rivalries could hasten the emergence of violent splinter groups, regional observers say.
To date, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has utilized non-violent methods, in particular the distribution of anti-government leaflets, in promoting its stated goal; the overthrow of the existing political order in Central Asian states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Information on the inner workings of the organization is sketchy, but there is evidence that dissatisfaction with the non-violent approach is growing within the Hizb leadership.
Observers believe that factionalism within Hizb-ut-Tahrir could cause the organization to adopt more confrontational tactics, or result in the creation of new groups that embrace terrorist methods akin to al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A commentary published by the Vecherny Bishkek web site said the US-led military occupation of Iraq has helped fuel the internal tactical debate within Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
"The US-led operation provoked a heated discussion in all the branches of the banned underground party. ...Calls for more active and radical steps became increasingly frequent," the Vecherny Bishkek commentary said. "[Kyrgyz] special services claim that these developments are a testament to the party's intention to make the most of the current situation both in the [Kyrgyz] republic, and in the world at large, to spread their ideology and recruit more members."
Two dissenting, though largely peaceful groups that trace their origins to Hizb-ut-Tahrir have emerged in recent years one is called Hizb-an-Nusra and the other is labeled Akramiya. Experts believe other, more radical splinter groups may be in the early stages of development.
A source in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who is familiar with the thinking of local Hizb activists said: "There are indeed individual Hizb-ut-Tahrir members who are disillusioned with the party's commitment to non-violent methods."
Hizb-an-Nusra appeared in the Tashkent area in 1999, according to a report prepared by the International Crisis Group entitled "IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir: Implications of the Afghanistan Campaign." In a 2002 report entitled "Islam in the Social and Political Life of Uzbekistan," Dr. Bakhtiar Babadjanov, a Tashkent-based political scientist, suggested Hizb-an-Nusra leaders believe that non-violent tactics will never be sufficient to bring about the collapse of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir's main tactic of distributing leaflets caused the arrest of "a significant proportion of Hizb-ut-Tahrir's younger membership," Babadjanov wrote. As a result, the Hizb-an-Nusra leaders decided it "was time for more radical efforts."
Meanwhile, Akramiya was founded in 1996 by Akram Yuldashev, a former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member from Andijan, Uzbekistan's third largest city. In a pamphlet entitled Yimonga Yul (Way to Faith), Yuldashev argued that Hizb-ut-Tahrir's non-violent tactics were devised for Arab states and were ill-suited for success in Central Asia. In splitting with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Yuldashev argued that Islamic governance should be established on a local level, rather than on a national level.
According to Babadjanov, Yuldashev attempted to develop tactics suited to the Ferghana Valley's specific social and economic conditions. The region is Central Asia's breadbasket, but suffers from overpopulation. Yuldashev based his tactics on the formation of cells that grouped individuals from the same professional background. Yuldashev also urged that his organization seek legalized status so that it could operate openly on the grassroots level.
Today, Yuldashev is reportedly languishing in an Uzbek prison caught up in the Uzbek government's far-reaching crackdown on unsanctioned religious activity.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir's internal differences have received scant media attention in Central Asia. Regional authorities seem aware of the factionalism issue, but emphasize that they continue to regard Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a major threat to stability in Central Asia.
Hizb membership has reportedly grown significantly since the September 11 terrorist tragedy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The rise in the perceived threat has been accompanied by the intensification of the clampdown against suspected members.
Prior to this year, Hizb-ut-Tahrir focused most of its activity on Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. Of late, however, the group's leafleting activities have spread to cities in southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan. According to an October 15 report by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency, for example, authorities in the Kazakhstani city of Shymkent confiscated leaflets and arrested three alleged Hizb members on charges of trying to foment "interethnic and religious hostility."
Some local observers maintain that government repression is encouraging radicalization within Hizb-ut-Tahrir's ranks. A few officials, such as Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu, have suggested the best way to contain the Hizb threat would be to legalize the organization's activities. That would make it easier for officials to identify the most radical elements and to isolate them, advocates of legalization argue.
Other observers question whether legalization would serve to moderate Hizb's outlook. They note that the underground group has never expressed a desire to enter into a dialogue with incumbent authorities. In any event, authorities in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the region show no sign of wanting to ease their tough stance towards Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C..