Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Islamic Group Banned by Many Is Not on U.S. Terrorist List

Islamic Group Banned by Many Is Not on U.S. Terrorist List

By David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page A04

The militant Islamic group exhorts Muslims to suicide bombings, martyrdom against American "infidels" and the killing of Jews. It openly advocates replacing all Middle East governments with an Islamic caliphate and rails against "the American campaign to suppress Islam."

The group has been outlawed in all Arab countries, as well as in Turkey, Pakistan, Russia and throughout Central Asia, where hundreds of its members have been jailed. Germany, too, has banned the group because it "supports the use of violence as a means to realize political interests," according to the German Interior Ministry.

But the Bush administration, which has designated more than 390 groups and individuals as "global terrorists," has declined to add this particular one to the list.

How to handle Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami -- the Islamic Liberation Party or HT -- has become the focus of a debate inside and outside the Bush administration that weighs the president's promise to promote democracy in the greater Middle East against the new imperatives of the fight against terrorism.

Two conservative think tanks, the Nixon Center and the Heritage Foundation, are pressing the administration to designate the Islamic Liberation Party as a terrorist group. Human Rights Watch, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, and experts at the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution contend that such a step would fan the fires of Islamic extremism.

Zeyno Baran, the Nixon Center's international security program director, has held a series of workshops this year in Ankara, Turkey, and Washington to highlight the party's revolutionary goals and tactics. She argues it should not be protected on grounds of freedom of religion or speech. "It's not a religious organization, it's a political party that uses religion as a tool" and is drifting toward violence, she said.

Both Baran and the Heritage Foundation's Central Asian specialist, Ariel Cohen, have testified in Congress urging designation. But others argue that would incite Central Asian governments to crack down on all Muslim groups, making the situation worse.

"It doesn't serve anybody's interest to go after peaceful Muslim believers," said Acacia Shields, senior Central Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "There has to be a distinction made between Muslims we have disagreements with and Muslims actively involved in violence."

Despite the inflammatory rhetoric on its Web site and in pamphlets, the Islamic Liberation Party does not explicitly espouse violence as a means of coming to power itself. Nor has the party been found engaging in terrorism, according to State Department officials.

The party is gaining followers throughout Central Asia, and some U.S. officials say that a decision to brand it a terrorist entity could turn it into another al Qaeda and undermine U.S. efforts to encourage the emergence of moderate Islamic groups throughout the region.

The matter could be further complicated by the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan, which has permitted the United States to use an air base for its operations against al Qaeda inside neighboring Afghanistan. The Islamic Liberation Party -- though outlawed -- is becoming the main political opposition to Uzbekistan's repressive secular government. To some U.S. human rights groups, the party has become a symbol of the struggle for religious and political freedoms against such repressive governments.

Although it has branches in many European countries, there have been no reports of Islamic Liberation being active in the United States, though its literature has appeared in some mosques.

Under a 2001 presidential order, a foreign entity can be designated a global terrorist if it either engaged in an act of terrorism, provides material support to another designated group or poses "a significant risk" to U.S. foreign policy. A designation results in U.S. and U.N. sanctions that make the group an international pariah.

Under another provision of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, the U.S. government can also designate an organization if it "incites to commit" a terrorist act. Seldom used to justify designations, the State Department did so on Dec. 17 in the case of a television network -- al-Manar -- that belongs to Lebanon's Shiite political group Hezbollah.

"Our law says that the organization [al-Manar] can be put on the list if it commits or incites to commit any terrorist activity," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"The United States is having a very hard time dealing with this," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors political and religious persecution worldwide. "It's a very fine line between inciting and training for terrorism. Everybody's trying to figure out where to draw the line."

One senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Islamic radicalism in Central Asia is "a serious and growing danger not fully appreciated by people in this town." He called Islamic Liberation "a factory" for producing radical Islamic ideas but said on balance he still believes it should not be designated as a terrorist group.

"They say they want to overthrow secular governments, that it's okay to fly planes into buildings," he said. "But they claim to be nonviolent. They are using our language against us. . . . It's hard to nail them."

Part of the administration's anti-terrorism strategy has been to try to persuade Central Asian leaders to allow independent and moderate Islamic groups to operate legally. Uzbek leaders, however, say they see nothing moderate in Islamic Liberation's announced goals.

The party's aim "is gaining political power through religion," Zukhriddin Khusnidinov, an adviser to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, said at a conference at the Nixon Center in Washington in October. "It is crucial to outlaw all radical religious groups whose ideology generates international terrorism," added Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Uzbek ambassador to Washington.

"It's kind of a conundrum for the U.S. government," said the senior Bush administration official. "The rhetoric is really vile. The question is: Do they have the right to freedom of expression?"

Arab and other Muslim governments have been pondering that question for 52 years. The party was founded in 1952 by a Palestinian judge, Taqiuddin Nabhani, who lived in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule. He broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egypt-based militant Islamic group, rejecting its willingness to even consider cooperation with Egypt's secular authorities in seeking power.

Jordanian authorities refused to recognize the party and arrested some of its leaders, forcing it underground, where it continued to spread slowly throughout the Muslim world. Today, it has branches in 30 to 40 counties from Indonesia to Denmark, recruiting particularly on college campuses and at mosques.

Still, little is known about this international organization that has attracted tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Its Web site, www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org, says it is "a political party whose ideology is Islam." Yet, it has shown no interest in participating in elections and none in sharing power with other parties.

Although its spokesmen renounce violence, the party's Web site describes a three-stage plan aimed at "seizing the reins of power" across the Muslim world. "It is forbidden to seize partial power," the Web site states, and "the implementation of Islam must be comprehensive."

Its tactics for achieving these goals seem inspired by those of communist parties. The first stage of its plan calls for indoctrinating recruits in small "study groups" that subsequently morph into secret cells of five to six people operating independently of each other, according to a report from the International Crisis Group, which has issued several reports on the party.

Islamic Liberation was involved in failed coup attempts in both Jordan and Egypt before renouncing violence in the mid-1970s. When Nabhani died in 1978, another Palestinian, Abdul Kaddim Zalloum, a religious scholar educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, became party leader and remained so until his death in April 2003.

The current leader is Sheik Ata Abu Rashta, a Palestinian Jordanian Islamic scholar about whom little is known, including his whereabouts.