The Road from Tashkent to the Taliban

An Islamist terror group is undermining a U.S. ally.

Director, International Security and Energy Programs, the Nixon Center

Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim U.S. ally bordering Afghanistan, has been shaken by terrorist attacks this week. Hosting a U.S. military base in Khanabad, supporting U.S actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and insisting on a secular regime while repressing political dissent, this former Soviet republic has for years been a prime target for the spread of radical Islamist ideology and its terrorist adherents.

The developments in Uzbekistan have important implications for the next stage of the war on terror. First, two female suicide bombers were involved; the use of women signals the spreading influence of radical Islamism with roots in the Middle East. We can expect more female terrorists and suicide bombings globally.

Second, these attacks were not directed towards Westerners but targeted fellow Muslims. One of the bombings occurred outside a children's store near Tashkent's largest market, and the other, near a madrassah. This clearly indicates that the terrorists no longer mind killing other Muslims to achieve their ends.

Third, on March 28 Uzbek authorities reported a blast in a private house in Bukhara that allegedly was being used as a bomb factory and as a hiding place for Kalashnikov assault rifles and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) propaganda. Given the Uzbek government's credibility gap, many doubt these reports on the involvement of HT, a radical Islamist political party that seeks to overthrow the secular governments of Central Asia and replace them with a single Islamist state — the caliphate. If, in this case, an HT site was used to store weapons, it would undermine HT's claims that it is neither a violent nor a terrorist organization.

Whether HT employs violence is of great importance in the context of the global war on terror. HT was founded in 1952 in Jordan by Taqi ud-Din an-Nabahani, a Palestinian judge. Nabahani received his education in Egypt's al-Azhar university, a leading Islamic institute which, over the decades, became corrupted by the influence of radical Wahhabi teachings. Nabahani was a member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, and following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, became a refugee in the Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem. There he created HT, which attracted Palestinian youth and produced anti-Semitic material. What made HT particularly popular was its promotion of the caliphate, an entity which has no borders and unites the global Muslim ummah (community).

After (unsuccessful) coup attempts in Jordan and Egypt, HT was banned throughout most of the Middle East owing to its promotion of sedition — although it always claimed to be doing so in theory and not in action. HT then moved to Western Europe, where it benefited from liberal societies that allowed freedom of speech, even speech that filled people's minds and hearts with hatred. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, HT spread into Central Asia, where people had a yearning to learn Islam yet lacked resources. Today, HT is active all over the world, including in the United States.

Because HT itself has not been implicated in a "terrorist act" so far, and has meticulously stayed on the right side of the law, the U.S. and its European allies have turned a blind eye to its activities — with one exception. Germany banned HT owing to its anti-Semitic nature.

At a recent two-day workshop, the Nixon Center organized a focused discussion on HT. International experts and law-enforcement agencies agreed that HT is a "conveyor belt" for producing terrorists. Not all groups have to be directly involved in the terrorist act itself; HT produces thousands of manipulated brains, which then "graduate" from HT and become members of groups like al Qaeda.

According to intelligence sources and the speakers at this conference, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with al Qaeda links, was originally a member of HT in Jordan. After providing training in Afghanistan, Zarqawi brought his HT ideology to Iraq and made common cause with Ansar Al-Islam. Al Qaeda commander Khalid Shaikh Mohammed apparently also spent time with HT. Omar Shaikh Mohammed (murderer of journalist Daniel Pearl) was not a member, but HT provided him with access to more radical groups. In short, while HT may not be operational itself, it is superbly positioned to channel people into undertaking the mission of the day.

One of the conference participants compared the methods and ideologies of HT with those of the Marxist-Leninists whose ideology shook the world for half a century. Similarly, HT is small in numbers but acts as a vanguard for raising Muslim consciousness toward action. HT had called for hijackings of airplanes, but has not itself carried out such actions. It also sanctioned the killing of "Jews, Americans, and Brits," as well as the "kafirs," or the non-believers, who, in their view, include Muslims who are not what they define as "good Muslims."

HT employs different strategies in different countries. In the U.S. and Europe, it appeals to educated Muslims (often those with university degrees in the sciences) who want to become politically active. Thus, the value added per HT member is much higher than that brought by the usual foot soldier in other organizations. HT also appeals to other Marxist-Leninist, anti-American, and anti-Semitic groups gaining popularity in Europe.

Imran Waheed, the spokesperson for the London-based HT headquarters, denied the group's involvement in the Uzbek attacks and insists HT does not engage in "terrorism, violence, or armed struggle against innocent civilians," and blames the government for orchestrating these attacks itself to crack down on "peaceful and nonviolent Islamic movements." However, the West can no longer ignore the deadly impact of HT ideology, which provides very simple answers to complex problems and reaches millions of Muslims (even in tiny villages) through cyberspace, the distribution of leaflets, and secret teaching centers.

It is important to keep in mind that al Qaeda's founding charter clearly stated that it is the "pioneering vanguard" of the Islamic movement, and hence has the responsibility to lead the way for the other Islamic groups. That is why al Qaeda attacked America's most outstanding landmarks. Following the successful regime change in Spain by attacking soft targets, terrorists have moved into another phase. And while HT-trained people initially desired that regime change in Central Asia be brought by peaceful means, given the momentum Islamist radicals have gained so far, it is possible that they have decided to move faster and to use all possible means.

HT increasingly looks like an ideological launching pad for Muslim believers toward terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which appears on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, and which suffered a serious blow last weekend when one of its key leaders, Tahir Yoldash, was reportedly wounded in Pakistan. Yoldash cooperated with al Qaeda, and his IMU was implicated in the 1999 Tashkent bombings that apparently targeted President Islam Karimov. The timing of this week's attacks may be related; Karimov claims that the overthrow of the government has been planned "for at least 6 months" to coincide with the March 21 New Year celebrations.

What should the U.S. do? It is time to name the war correctly: This is a war of ideologies, and terrorist acts are the tip of the iceberg. Dealing with such an ideological war requires a different set of strategies than ones used during the Cold War for three reasons. First, the U.S. is widely hated in the Muslim world; however, during the Cold War, the peoples of the Soviet Union envied the West, which made pro-Western change possible. Second, the ideology of democracy and capitalism has failed in most of the Muslim world, leaving Islamist radicalism as the only attraction. Third, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the effective media campaign showing "brutal" American attacks on "innocent" Iraqis and Afghans make it extremely difficult for the U.S. to win Muslim hearts and minds.

Th U.S. should take concrete steps to address these challenges. It could provide financial assistance to schools in Muslim countries so that foreign-sponsored radical ideology does not dominate their teachings. The U.S. can work with allies to ban literature and teachings that incite hatred and violence — a step admittedly hard for liberal Western societies to undertake. Above all, the U.S. can work with Muslim allies to get them to liberalize their political systems, and to encourage them to pay attention to socio-economic equality and injustice in their societies so that people do not turn to radical ideologies in the first place. This is easier said than done: The U.S. and its European allies frequently lecture Muslim leaders about the need to democratize, but often fail to understand the internal challenges faced by these countries. Even so, the crucial thing for Arab and Muslim leaders to understand is that the politically disaffected have an opportunity, often represented by Islamist political parties, to express their dissent. Otherwise, they will answer the call of derstuctive movements like HT.