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Homeland Security

Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-0128

Interests in Central Asia

Testimony by Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Studies,
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies,
The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.

House International Relations Committee,
Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia (MECA), October 29, 2003.


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Radical Islam and U.S. Interests in Central Asia

Testimony by Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Studies,
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies,
The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.

House International Relations Committee Hearings, Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia (MECA), July 23, 2003.


U.S. power projection on a global scale due to the war on terrorism raises new issues, especially with regards to the attitude of regional powers, elites, and population, to American presence. Much was said, often critically, about American alleged global power aspirations. What is the actual American presence in Central Asia and how much does it change the balance of power in the region? How will it affect the future of Central Asia? What are political currents and organizations, which oppose U.S. presence in that region, and what are the ways to counter them? How U.S. presence may be influenced by radical Islamic organizations there? What is the influence of the war in Iraq on perceptions of U.S. presence in Central Asia? All these questions are awaiting their answers.

U.S. presence in Central Asia is the direct result of the 9/11 attack on the United States. Almost two years after, Al Qaeda is still not fully neutralized, many of its top leaders at large, and a threat of attack on U.S. interests at home and abroad remains significant. Al Qaeda commanders twice escaped encirclement: at Tora-Bora and during Operation Anaconda. As long as this is the case, U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia will remain crucial. While the majority of Central Asian governments welcome the U.S. forces, the war in Iraq has complicated the picture. However, beyond the immediate pressure of the war on terror, U.S. interests in Central Asia, defined as the five former Soviet republics, remain limited.

The presence of a U.S. military contingent in the region, and close cooperation with the local political leaders and U.S. operation to topple Saddam Hussein, may in the long term heighten tensions between Americans and local, primarily Islamic, political forces, and bring friction with Islamic leaders and organizations. Perception that the U.S. actually supports authoritarian local leaders, such as President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, may provide an anti-American and anti-Western dimension to a local political rift. Transnational Islamic movements, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was closely linked to Al Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) also contribute to globalization of conflicts in Central Asia.

The U.S. strategic shift in Central Asia. The military necessities of the war in Afghanistan dictated the renewal of American interest and involvement in Central Asia. As the United States faced the challenge of a speedy power projection into the main front against the Taliban in the north, U.S. policy makers turned to Central Asian states and Russia.

From the end of September 2001, the U.S. started deploying special forces in the countries adjacent to Afghanistan and move them into the Northern Alliance territory. Considering difficulties of access, sluggish pace of diplomatic relations prior to 9/11, the lack of modern air bases, and sheer distances, this was an impressive U.S. performance.

America’s challenge. Since the fall of 2001, the U.S. projected elements of air power and special forces into Central Asia. According to General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, An U.S. and NATO air force base was established in Manas International Airport, Kyrgyzstan, and Qarshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan. Elements of the U.S. military were positioned in Tajikistan. Some of these deployments came under the aegis of NATO and Partnership for Peace program, while others through bilateral U.S.-Uzbekistan military contacts. General Anthony Zinni, then-CINC of the Central Command, which is geographically in charge of Central Asia, has started these contacts in the mid- and late 1990s.

While these units have an immediate relevance to the war in Afghanistan, civilian public servants, the military, and analysts in the Pentagon and beyond have suggested that some of these units may be of use in the future action against terrorist organizations and regimes which support them. Off the record, the Pentagon officials have said that while the U.S. has not requested permanent basing rights in the region, its presence will be open-ended. U.S. policy makers and officials have suggested different avenues of rationalization for the current and future presence. They named protecting energy resources and pipelines; deterring the resurrection of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia; preventing Russian and/or Chinese hegemony; facilitating democratization and market reforms; and using Central Asia as a re-supply depot for possible action in Afghanistan, as preferred rationale for U.S. presence. Moreover, Central Asia was mentioned as a launching pad in the future operations against Iraq and Iran. Most of these explanations are insufficient by themselves; however, it is possible that a combination of such policies does require at least a level of the U.S. military and political presence in the region. The size, scope, and duration of such a deployment is an issue to be defined by U.S. needs, and host countries’ desires and capabilities.

Radical Islamist organizations, however, staunchly oppose American presence on any Muslim soil. One particular organization in Central Asia made a campaign against U.S. deployment there, and against local political leaders who allowed such deployment, the focus of its quest. This organization is Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami.

PART I: Hizb ut-Tahrir: An Emerging Threat to U.S.
Interests in Central Asia
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) is an emerging threat to American interests in Central and South Asia and the Middle East. It is a clandestine, cadre-operated, global radical Islamist political organization that operates in 40 countries around the world, with headquarters apparently in London. Its proclaimed goal is Jihad against America and the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a Califate (Khilafah in Arabic), a theocratic dictatorship based on the Shari’a (religious Islamic law). The model for Hizb is the “righteous” Califate, a militaristic Islamic state that existed in the 7th and 8th centuries under the Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors, known as the “righteous Califs.”

The 9/11 terrorist attack taught the United States a painful lesson—it must be alert to emerging threats, including terrorism and other destabilizing activities against its military assets, citizens, and allies. Some of these emerging threats, combined with the actions of terrorist Jihadi organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, may also generate political instability in key geographic areas and threaten friendly regimes. In Central Asia, the security situation has deteriorated because the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime has intensified the resolve of anti-American forces already active in the region.

The United States has important national security interests at stake in Central Asia, including access to the military bases used to support operations in Afghanistan, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and technologies for their production, and securing access to natural resources, including oil and gas. The U.S. is also committed to spreading democracy, promoting market reforms, and improving human rights standards in the vast heartland of Eurasia.

Therefore, to prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir from destabilizing Central Asia and other areas, the U.S. should expand intelligence collection on Hizb. The U.S. should encourage Central Asian governments to pursue reforms that will expand civil society and diminish the alienation on which Hizb and fundamentalist Islamist movements are preying. Specifically, the U.S. should condition security assistance on economic reform, encourage democracy and popular participation, discredit radical Islamist movements, and support religious and political moderation and pluralism.


Hizb-ut Tahrir al-Islami is an emerging threat to American interests and the countries in which it operates. It has 5,000–10,000 hard core members, and many more supporters in former Soviet Central Asia (e.g., Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) and is expanding its operations to oil-rich Kazakhstan. Over 10,000 members are active in Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Indonesia. At least 500 are already behind bars in Uzbekistan alone, and hundreds are in custody in the Middle East. By breeding violent anti-American attitudes, attempting to overthrow existing regimes, and preparing cadres for more radical Islamist organizations, Hizb poses a threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia and elsewhere in the Islamic world where moderate regimes are found.

Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani al Falastini, the founder of Hizb, has written that every Muslim should strive to establish a Califate, and that this religious imperative (fard) upon the Muslim nation (Ummah) is so strong, that Mohammad’s close allies delayed burying his body until a new Calif was appointed and the Califate established. The Califate would be led by a Calif, a supreme, pious leader who would combine religious and political power. A Calif, an-Nabhani believes, is a substitute for Prophet Mohammad as both political and religious leader. The Calif would appoint an Amir, or military leader, who would declare Jihad and wage war against all non-believers, including the United States. According to Hizb’s political vision, such an entity, if established, would not recognize existing national, regional, tribal, or clan differences and would include all Muslims.

An-Nabhani has drafted the constitution of this future Califate. It is not the constitution of a democratic state. The Calif would be appointed by acclamation by “prominent men,” with male voters casting a vote of approval. The ruler would not be directly accountable to the people, and there would be no checks or balances between branches of government. Succession would be by designation of the Calif or acclamation of the oligarchy. Thus, Hizb explicitly rejects democracy. In fact, one of An-Nabhani’s books is titled Democracy: The Law of Infidels. Yet, some regional observers have called for the legitimization of Hizb and its integration into the existing political model. In doing so, they ignore the obvious—Hizb’s goal is to smash the existing state apparatus, not to become a player within it.
Radical Islamic Roots. Since its inception in 1952 in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, Hizb has gained tens of thousands of followers from London to Lahore. From its beginning, an-Nabhani’s organization was influenced by the rabid anti-Semitism propagated by Sheikh Hajj Amin Al-Housseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was a major Nazi war collaborator. An-Nabhani, who was serving at the time on the Islamic appellate court in Jerusalem, was an associate and contemporary of Hajj Amin’s. He also drew on the organizational principles of Marxism-Leninism, which were quite well-known among the middle- and upper-class Arabs in British Mandate Palestine. Khaled Hassan, one of the founders of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization was also among the founders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, as was Sheikh Asaad Tahmimi, who became Islamic Jihad’s spiritual leader. Hizb supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and backs the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, a radical movement on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list.
An-Nabhani was also member of the radical Islamic Brotherhood (Al Ihwan al-Muslimeen), a secretive international fundamentalist organization founded in Egypt in 1928, which spread throughout the Islamic world and preaches the establishment of a Califate. He joined the Brotherhood while studying in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, but later left the Brotherhood because he considered it too soft. Hizb was likely supported initially by the Saudi-based radical Islamist Wahhabi movement, although the extent to which that support continues today is unclear.

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s spread around the globe, in Western Europe and often in authoritarian states with strong secret police organizations, is an impressive feat. It could only be accomplished by applying 20th century totalitarian political “technology” melded with Islamic notions of the 7th and 8th centuries, as interpreted by medieval Islamic scholars. The genius of Hizb founder an-Nabhani was marrying Orthodox Islamist ideology to Leninist strategy and tactics.

The Leninist model. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a totalitarian organization, akin to a disciplined, Marxist-Leninist party, in which internal dissent is neither encouraged nor tolerated. Because its goal is global revolution, a leading Islamic scholar has compared it to the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement. Its candidate members become well-versed in party literature during a two-year indoctrination course in a study circle, supervised by a party member. Only when a member “matures in Party culture,” “adopts the thoughts and opinions of the party,” and “melts with the Party” can he or she become a full-fledged member. Women are organized in cells supervised by a woman cadre or a male relative. After joining the party, the new recruit may be requested (or ordered) to relocate to start a new cell. When a critical mass of cells is achieved, according to its doctrine, Hizb may move to take over a country in preparation for the establishment of the Califate. Such a takeover would likely be bloody and violent. Moreover, its strategy and tactics show that, while the Party is currently circumspect in preaching violence, it will justify its use—just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did—when a critical mass is achieved.

Hizb’s platform and action fits in with “Islamist globalization”—an alternative mode of globalization based on radical Islam. This ideology poses a direct challenge to the Western model of a secular, market-driven, tolerant, multicultural globalization. Where radicalization has taken hold in the Islamic world, Hizb gains new supporters in droves. It operates clandestinely in over 40 countries around the world, with members organized in cells of five to eight members each. Only a cell commander knows the next level of leadership, ensuring operational security. “Representatives” in Great Britain and Pakistan claim to speak for the organization, but have no official address or legal office. Its leadership for large regions (e.g., the former Soviet Union), countries, and local areas is kept secret.
Hizb’s primary characteristics include the fiery rhetoric of Jihad, secret cells and operations, the murky funding sources, rejection of existing political regimes, rapid transnational growth, and shared outlook and goals with Al-Qaeda and other organizations of the global jihadi movement.

Anti-Americanism. Hizb has called for a Jihad against the U.S., its allies, and moderate Muslim states. The purpose of the Jihad is “to find and kill the Kufar (non-believers),” in fact rejecting the Islamic notion of Greater Jihad against one’s own sin. In documents drafted before 9/11, Hizb leaders accused the United States of imposing hegemony on the world. After 9/11, Hizb claimed that U.S. has declared war against the global Muslim community (Umma), has established an international alliance under the “pretext” of fighting terrorism, and is reinforcing its grip on the countries of Central Asia. Hizb further claimed that the U.S. accused Osama bin Laden of being responsible for the 9/11 attacks “without any evidence or proof.” The party attempted to use its influence by calling upon all Muslim governments to reject the U.S. appeal for cooperation in the war against terrorism. It called for expulsion of U.S. and Western citizens, including Western diplomats, from countries in which it will take power and shredding diplomatic treaties and agreements with Western governments. It further declared, Muslims! You are religiously obliged to reject this American question which takes you lightly and despises you. America does not have the sublime values that entitle it to tell you what to support and whom to fight against. You possess a divine mission. You are the ones to bring guidance and light to mankind. God described you with the following words: “You are the best people brought forth for the benefit of mankind. You enjoin good and forbid evil. And you believe in God.
“As for Jihad…it is legal, in fact it is an obligation, it is the apex of Islamic ethics, as Almighty God says, “Keep in store for them whatever you are capable of, force and equipment with which you can frighten those who are enemies of God and enemies of yourselves…God’s Messenger (Mohammed) said, ‘Islam is the head, prayer is the backbone and Jihad is the perfection.’”

Muslims! The law of religion does not allow you to give to America what it is trying to impose upon you. You are not allowed to follow its orders or to provide it with any assistance whatsoever, no matter whether it be intelligence or facilities of using you territory, your air space or your territorial waters. It is not permissible to cede military bases to the Americans, nor it is allowed to coordinate any military activities with them or to collaborate with them. It is not allowed to enter into an alliance with them or to be loyal to them, because they are enemies of Islam and Muslims. God said, “Believers, Do not befriend my enemy and your enemy…They have rejected the truth that has come to you.”

In a June 2001 article published in the party’s journal, Hizb ideologists claim that all methods are justified in the struggle against the Kufaar, including murder. Furthermore, they specifically mention that a pilot diving a plane hit by enemy fire into a crowd of Kufaar without bailing out with a parachute is a legitimate form of armed struggle. Furthermore, Hizb demands that Muslims come to the support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

According to Hizb, the main targets of Jihad—in addition to moderate Muslim regimes such as Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Uzbekistan—are America and the Jews. “America, Britain and their allies are leading a crusade in Afghanistan…These acts by America and Britain reflect their deep hostility toward the Muslim Ummah. It means that they are enemies. The relations between them and the Muslims constitute a state of war, and therefore, according to Islamic canons, all problems with regard to them should be dealt in accordance with war laws. This state of war also applies to countries that have formed an alliance with these two states.”The war of America and her allies against Islam and the Muslims has shown the corrupt nature of her civilization and her colonial world-view. The War on Iraq…has demonstrated that America and her allies only strive to colonize and plunder the resources of the Islamic world, not to bring about justice and security...America is intending to deceive you…she is inherently weak as her ideology is false and corrupt…The time has come for Islam not just in Iraq but in this entire Ummah. It is time for the Islamic State (Khilafah) to lead the world and save the world from the crimes and oppression of the capitalist system.
According to one of the Hizb Central Asian leaders, “we are very much opposed to the Jews and Israel…Jews must leave Central Asia. The United States is the enemy of Islam with the Jews.”International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research, at

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