By Zia Ur Rehman

KARACHI – Pakistani authorities are cracking down on Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in a bid to disrupt its network.

Even though HT has been illegal in Pakistan since 2003, it is active in big cities and poses a security threat, analysts say.

HT has been active since the 1990s, but it has garnered mainstream media coverage since the arrests of Brig. Ali Khan (May 6) and other four army officers (June 22), all of whom are under investigation for alleged links with the banned militant outfit, military spokesman Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said June 22.


Fears of an uprising

Pakistani intelligence agencies warned in April that HT was plotting to emulate the Egyptian revolution in Pakistan with sympathiser support inside the security forces, media reported, adding the outfit was attempting a “deep infiltration” of the military and academia.

HT’s ideology falls somewhere between political Islamists and militant Islamists, and in Pakistan, it has an anti-democratic outlook, Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank, said.

“HT’s description (on the list of) militant movements and groups in the country remains vague,” Rana told Central Asia Online, suggesting that this vagueness is a major hurdle in assessing the group’s real threat.

HT claims to be non-violent but has been linked with terrorist plots in Pakistan, including an attempt to assassinate then-president Gen. Pervez Musharaf in 2003, he added.

HT, founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by cleric Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, is present in several European, Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. However, the UK is considered HT’s recruiting centre and its likely headquarters, said Muhammad Naeem, a Karachi-based political analyst.

HT practices extreme secrecy in Pakistan, since it is illegal there, he said. The Interior Ministry proscribed HT November 11, 2003, citing sectarian and terrorist activities.

Few of its leaders are allowed to reveal their identity and the group is organised into five- or six-member cells, Naeem said, adding that some reports suggest that HT has strong links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other militant groups.

Doesn’t conform to stereotypes

HT is dangerous for Pakistan for three main reasons, Rashid Ali, a former HT leader who now works with a London-based anti-extremism organisation called CENTRI, has said.

It justifies the existence of militant groups by accusing the Pakistan government of infidelity, it calls for secession within the military, and there are indications that the group is seeking to take power through a military coup, he said.

HT regularly distributes pamphlets in middle- and upper-middle class residential areas and at educational institutions of large cities, Central Asia Online has learnt.

Passersby can find posters on walls in cities, urging army officers to rise against the “infidel” government and help establish the so-called “caliphate.”

Naveed Butt, Imran Yousafzai and Shehzad Sheikh are key leaders of HT Pakistan. It received financial support during its formation from the UK chapter, according to an October 2010 PIPS study entitled “HT in Pakistan: Discourse and Impact.”

HT on the internet

Since HT is banned in Pakistan, the mainstream media are reluctant to cover its activities, according to the report. HT has responded by turning to the internet, posting various publications, videos and other information on its websites.

“Along with countering HT through human intelligence, security organisations also need to concentrate on modern cyber techniques,” said Rana.

Some cracks have appeared in HT’s unity, though. Maajid Nawaz, a key co-organiser, resigned in May 2007, denouncing militancy. He co-founded Khudi, Pakistan’s first nationwide counter-extremist social movement, and Quillium, a think tank.

“I no longer agreed with the outfit’s attempts to transform Islam into a narrow political ideology,” Nawaz, a Pakistani-Briton, said when he resigned.

Security agencies have begun a crackdown against HT to dismantle its network. Police arrested Yousafzai, the acknowledged deputy spokesman for HT Pakistan, in Islamabad July 12. They arrested Abdul Qayyum, a dental surgeon, July 29 in the Rahimyar Khan District of Punjab, and Hayyan Khan and Usman Haneef July 13 and 21, respectively, in Islamabad. Police called them all leaders or senior members of HT.

HT claims that its more than 1m members are working to restore a caliphate and that Pakistan is one of its top five sources of members.

However, security analysts say the group, though dangerous, has limited influence in Pakistan.

“HT demonstrations usually don’t attract more than 100 people, which clearly shows its role is very limited in Pakistan,” Musa Ali, a journalist based in Karachi, told Central Asia Online.