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Asia Times
July 21, 2003
Moscow turns up heat on radicals
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - After a recent crackdown on alleged Muslim extremists, Moscow continues its verbal assault on radical groups, including those of Central Asian origin. Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization face a common enemy, the terrorist groups operating in Central Asia and in the Caucasus against Europe and the US, Konstantin Totsky, Russia's envoy to NATO, stated last Tuesday.

This month, General Boris Mylnikov, head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Anti-Terrorist Center, stated that the international operation in Afghanistan merely dispersed but failed to destroy the Taliban and other Muslim radicals. Subsequently, the threat of Muslim radicalism, notably in the form of Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation), has increased in Central Asia, Mylnikov argued.

Moreover, it has been claimed that an effort is under way to unify radical Islamic groups in Central Asia, including those among the Hizb, Uighur separatists, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and possibly Chechen separatists.

For instance, this month the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) and Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), both successor agencies of the Soviet-era KGB, conducted a joint search for "Chechen terrorists" in Kazakhstan. Although some 30,000 Chechens still live in Kazakhstan (where they were exiled in 1944 by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin) and some 15,000 Chechens have taken refuge during the most recent Chechen war, the KNB and the FSB found no terrorists there.

Meanwhile, the KNB announced a crackdown on Uighur separatists there. On July 11, KNB head Nartai Dutbayev told journalists in Astana that three members of the "Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan" were detained with arms and explosives. He added that the alleged plotters "maintained ties with their accomplices in Afghanistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan".

Dutbayev also claimed that the IMU and the Hizb increased their clandestine activities in Kazakhstan. Ten members of Hizb were detained in southern Kazakhstan, he said, adding that the Hizb posed "a real threat to Kazakhstan's security".

Meanwhile, Russia, with its Orthodox Christian majority and 20-million-strong Muslim minority, is extremely wary of a perceived threat of Muslim extremism, notably with a backdrop of endemic violence in predominantly Muslim Chechnya.

Notably, last month law-enforcement agencies in Moscow announced that they had detained 121 alleged Muslim militants, including 55 suspected members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami radical group. The suspects were reportedly headed by Kyrgyz citizen Alisher Musayev and Tajik citizen Akram Jalolov. It was reported that hand grenades, explosives and ammunition were found on some detainees, as well as Islamic propaganda leaflets.

There have been contradicting Russian media reports regarding alleged plotters in Moscow. Hizb ut-Tahrir activists were accused of recruiting volunteers to fight against Russian troops in Chechnya and of plotting to create an Islamic state in Russia and even to assassinate the presidents of Muslim Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, as well as Orthodox Christian Ukraine. So far, there have been no comments or confirmation from the states mentioned. Moreover, all the detained except Musayev and Dzalolov were eventually released.

However, Russia's Memorial human-rights group eventually claimed that the announcement of the Hizb bust was a sham designed to show that Russia is fighting terrorism. The police rounded up workers at a bakery that employs immigrants from Central Asia, said Vitaly Ponomaryov, head of Memorial's Central Asia program. Only two people have been charged as a result of the raid, and the detainees' alleged membership in any extremist organizations is far from certain, he said.

Vladimir Chumak, lawyer of Dzhalolov and Musayev, said both his clients deny their guilt and any connection to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Chumak claimed the explosives and ammunition may have been planted. Hizb ut-Tahrir has also said in a statement that "bringing explosives, planting them alongside books and leaflets of the Hizb and showing them together will not fool anyone".

However, Hizb ut-Tahrir's calls to seize power and supplant existing governments with Islamist regimes for the purpose of jihad against the West may have drawn attention of the law-enforcement agencies in Russia and other Central Asian states.

The FSB has long accused Hizb ut-Tahrir of links with separatist fighters, Wahhabists and alleged Arab mercenaries combating Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The FSB also argued that the group was recently joined by members of the IMU, a radical Central Asian-based Islamic organization. The IMU was linked to the Taliban and was also routed during the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Last month's arrests were the latest in a long series of measures against radical Islamists, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Russian officials have been lashing out at this group for quite some time. Two years ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry described Hizb-ut-Tahrir as "the most radical clandestine extremist structure, funded by overseas centers, which aims at Islamization of Russia and neighboring countries". In May 2001, General Boris Mylnikov, head of the CIS Anti-Terrorist Center, stated that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was "an organization of international terrorism, potentially threatening Russia and CIS". On December 16 last year, FSM head Nikolai Patrushev stated that Hizb-ut-Tahrir "organized armed units and took part in these units".

In May 2001, the FSB and Moscow police detained Uzbek national and Hizb activist Nodir Aliyev, who was sought by Uzbek authorities on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the regime in his homeland. Despite protests by human-rights activists, in just three days Aliyev was deported to Uzbekistan.

This year, Russian authorities moved to ban what they viewed as terrorist organizations. On February 4, the FSB asked the Prosecutor General's Office to put 15 organizations on Russia's list of terrorist groups. Among the 15 were two Chechen groups - the Supreme Military Majlis-ul Shura of the United Mujahideen Forces of the Caucasus, headed by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, and the Congress of the Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan, headed by Basayev and another Chechen separatist leader, Movladi Udugov. Other groups on the FSB's list include al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb-ut Tahrir al-Islami. Subsequently, the Russian Supreme Court put Hizb ut-Tahrir and 14 other groups on a list of banned terrorist organizations.

Not surprisingly, the Russian government is weary of such groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, one of the most secretive fundamentalist Islamic organizations, which has been active in former Soviet states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although the group has never been involved in any violent actions, it is being repressed by many governments, which consider its radicalism a threat.

The ultimate goal of this clandestine, cadre-operated, radical Islamist political organization is jihad against Kufr (non-believers), the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a Caliphate (Khilafah in Arabic), a theocratic dictatorship based on the sharia (religious Islamic law). According to Hizb's vision, such a state would not recognize existing national, regional, tribal, or clan differences and would include all Muslims.

Since its inception in 1952 in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, Hizb has gained a mass following. Furthermore, Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani al Falastini, the founder of Hizb, who was serving at the time on the Islamic appellate court in Jerusalem, also drew on the organizational principles of Marxism-Leninism, marrying Islamist ideology to Leninist strategy and tactics.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has been seen as a totalitarian organization, akin to a disciplined Marxist-Leninist party, which tolerates no internal dissent. Because its goal is global revolution, it was compared to the Trotskyites. Moreover, Hizb opponents argue that its strategy and tactics show that, while the party is currently circumspect in preaching violence, it will justify its use, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did in 1917. Russia's today mainly anti-communist elite is necessarily wary of any Bolshevik-type party, notably one utilizing radical Muslim slogans.

Hizb expansion into Central Asia coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In the authoritarian post-Soviet states in Central Asia, Hizb ut-Tahrir has seized a protest niche that could be occupied by a political opposition, had it been allowed by the authorities.

Moreover, in Central Asia Hizb reportedly seeks to penetrate state structures and enlist government officials and military officers. Its platform openly states that the group has started to seek the support of influential people. Hizb has begun to penetrate the elites in Central Asia. Media in the region have reported successes in penetrating the parliament in Kyrgyzstan, the media in Kazakhstan, and customs offices in Uzbekistan.

Hizb ut-Tahrir now has large followings in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. It has an estimated 5,000-10,000 members, and many supporters in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At least 500 are already behind bars in Uzbekistan alone. Most of its members are believed to be ethnic Uzbeks. Moreover, Hizb ut-Tahrir has reportedly extended its influence into China's traditionally Muslim Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The use of "heavy-handed repression" by Central Asian governments increases the risk that the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a non-violent radical Islamic group, will adopt more confrontational tactics, according to a recently published study, prepared by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). In its report, titled "Radical Islam in Central Asia: Responding to Hizb-ut-Tahrir", the ICG argues that the organization is an "essentially peaceful group". The Hizb has specifically rejected terrorism, believing the murder of innocent bystanders to be a violation of Islamic law, the report said.

However, Moscow presumably would not subscribe to that sort of argument. Furthermore, Russia has geopolitical motives to crack down on groups such as Hizb, because the fight against "terrorism and extremism" now tops the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups together Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The group has drafted "the Shanghai anti-terror convention". The presidents of the SCO states gathered in the Kremlin on May 29 and decided that the organization would have a Regional Anti-Terrorist Force in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The force is to tackle jointly such threats as terrorism, separatism and extremism. The SCO also plans to hold joint "anti-terrorist" exercises late this year in Kazakhstan involving the armed forces of all six member states.

The SCO has been understood as one of the vehicles used by Russia to sustain its clout in strategically important Central Asia, as well as maintain good relations with China. Hence the crackdown on groups such as Hizb, which are seen as a threat in other SCO states, is consistent with the goals of Russia's domestic and foreign policies.

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