Targeting military officers, teachers, students and journalists, HT capitalises on extremism in Pakistan with a goal to usurp power

By Zia Ur Rehman

The Friday Times, August 19-25, 2011

Osama Haneef, an employee of a leading cellular company, is missing from G-11 area of Islamabad since July 21, when he left home for office. He is said to have been abducted by intelligence agencies for links with Hizbut Tahrir (HT). His role in the organisation was limited to distribution of literature or to coordinating protests, his father, Muhammad Haneef, told the media.

HT says Osama is not their only operative who has been held by intelligence agencies. “Imran Yousafzai, deputy to the spokesperson of HT in Pakistan, and Hayyan Khan have also been held by intelligence agencies,” said a leader of the group in Karachi. “After seeing public anger in Raheem Yar Khan against the abduction of Dr Qayyum, local police admitted he was under the custody of agencies.”

The group has also launched a campaign for the release of the held operatives putting up posters in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Since the arrest of Brig Ali Khan on May 6 and four other army officers on June 22 for their alleged links with HT, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have been cracking down against the outfit. “We follow a zero tolerance policy on such type of activities,” ISPR Director General Maj General Athar Abbas told the media.

Security analysts believe there is a need for closer monitoring of HT activities in the country, especially considering the outfit’s stated goal of infiltrating Pakistan’s military to usurp power to create of what they call an ‘Islamic’ state.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies warned in April that the HT was plotting an Egypt-like uprising in the country with the support of sympathisers within the security forces, according to an Express Tribune report. The report said the outfit was attempting ‘deep infiltration’ of the military and academia.

On November 11, 2003, the Interior Ministry banned HT because it was linked to a number of terrorist plots in Pakistan, including an attempt to assassinate former president Gen Pervez Musharaf in 2003. It said the outfit was also involved in sectarian, militant and terrorist activities.

“The HT, an ideological group that falls somewhere between political Islamists and militants Islamists, has an anti-democratic and anti-constitutional outlook and agenda in Pakistan,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS). Its description on violent militant movement and groups remains unclear, and that is a major hurdle is assessing the real threat the group can pose, Rana told TFT.

“HT is dangerous for Pakistan for three key reasons. First, they rationalise the argument of militant organisations by declaring the state of Pakistan as ‘kufr’ (infidelity). Second, they call for secession within the military, when Pakistan has suffered so much since the state of war on terror. Third, they are approaching military that they are seeking to take power through a military coup,” said Rashid Ali, a former HT leader who now works with a London-based anti-extremism organisation called CENTRI, had said. HT posters in Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore urge the army officers to rise against the government of ‘kufr ‘ and help establish a ‘caliphate’.

HT’s former global leader, late Abdul Qadeem Zallum from Palestine, considered Pakistan as an important future stronghold and a strategic base after the country went nuclear in 1999, according to various reports. Zallum asked HT members of Pakistani origin to return to their home country and organise the group in the country. Influencing the military and recruiting senior officers was the prime motive.

Terming the arrest of the brigadier very significant, security experts say that it represents a clear and explicit acknowledgement of a problem of Islamist extremism in the armed forces. They suggest that the HT should be carefully monitored to prevent further recruitment.

Naveed Butt, Imran Yousafzai and Shehzad Shiekh are key leaders of HT’s Pakistan chapter. Not all of their leaders are allowed to reveal their identity. The group is organised in small cells of five to six members. The organisation claims it has over one million members worldwide. Financial support for the HT to set up operations in Pakistan mostly came from the UK chapter of the outfit. They regularly distribute pamphlets and leaflets in middle and upper-middle class residential areas and educational institutions of large cities.

When the Pakistani expatriates from relatively successful families living in the UK returned to Pakistan to recruit for the HT, “People were impressed that these young and educated Pakistani British were so committed to Islam,” said a teacher at University of Karachi who privately follows the group’s activities. He believes the recruitment campaign among students is clearly successful, and they have cells in Karachi’s major universities and private colleges.

The group targets educated people and professional groups, such as journalists, teachers, bureaucrats, engineers and army officers. “Citizens hailing from these categories are in the best position to influence public opinion,” said the HT Karachi leader.

Since the group is banned in Pakistan, mainstream media is reluctant to cover its protests. HT uses the internet for outreach, publishing a wide range of e-books, websites and videos in both English and Urdu.

Some analysts say the group has a limited influence in the Pakistani society. “HT protest demonstrations usually don’t attract more than 100 people which clearly shows their role in Pakistan is very limited,” a Karachi-based journalist said.

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and a researcher based in Karachi