Islamism on the Rise in Ferghana

by Joshua Foust on 11/19/2007 · 23 comments

Several months ago, I expressed skepticism at the claim that the IMU was making a comeback: given its invocation any time one of the governments that poke territory into Ferghana feel the need to crack down on their citizens, it just didn’t seem credible. That isn’t to say Islamism is not gaining market share, as recounted by a recent Alisher Saipov documentary about the increasing popularity of Hizb-ut-Tahrir on Channel Four. The BBC has picked up this meme as well:

Both are very worth watching. Writing at neweurasia—Uzbekistan, blogger Libertad notes his reaction:

I think that officials of both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan need to take another, more effective approach in dealing with religious organizations, especially Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Here I fully agree with Tim Epkenhans, director of OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who told to BBC reporter that “the security agencies [of the region] definitely provided these [Islamic] organizations with certain myth that they are doing something bad against the government” and that “the very disproportionate prosecution of Islamic organizations, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, is in the end generating more conflict and violence than it solves.”

Indeed, that is the pattern of most Muslim-majority societies that have gradually radicalized. Government over-reach and poor planning result in an increase, rather than a decrease, in the social capital of these radical groups. But as long as groups like the IMU serve as the Great Boogeyman to gullible Western policy-makers, I doubt we will see much change.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Laurence November 19, 2007 at 6:45 pm

Josh, I don’t understand this cliche about the causes of Islamism being repressive dictatorships–if that were the case, it wouldn’t be spreading in London, England. Last time I checked, the UK was a democracy. Yet Gordon Brown made a speech that there is a real threat from Islamist extremist terrorism–and the MI6 chief made a speech that there were 2,000 terror supporters in the UK. Since you can’t argue that Gordon Brown is a dictator (at least not reasonably), maybe dictatorship isn’t the cause? Perhaps Islamism is the new Leninism, and the weakness of the West since 9/11 makes it look like the “strong horse?” I’d say it is more likely that people who support Islamism think they are betting on a winner–just as they did with Communism, Nazism, or any totalitarian movement. They all had “legitimate grievances”….

Michael Hancock November 19, 2007 at 7:31 pm

Excellent reporting on the part of Channel Four. It’s a special nostalgia to hear the mix of Uzbek and Russian that I used to hear every day.

I think the main thing to recall from this whole report was what one interviewee said “When a mother joins these organizations, they automatically recruit their children.”

True – especially in Central Asia!

Michael Hancock November 19, 2007 at 7:44 pm

Allow me to say that, before I think of anything else, I pray that Natalia Antelava can stay safe to report more stories in the future.

Ian November 19, 2007 at 7:57 pm

Joshua, Hizb ut Tahrir and IMU are two very different things. You should be clearer about that.

Laurence, maybe people have different reasons for identifying with the politcal uses of religion in different places. One model may not fit all.

And I have to say I’m very skeptical of the portrayal of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a revolutionary movement along Leninist lines. From what little I know, they aren’t particularly oriented toward violent means. The talk about the coming “Caliphate” scares Westerners, but doesn’t appear to be anything more than a simplistic form of political utopianism that doesn’t necessarily even contradict coexistence with and among other religions.

Joshua Foust November 20, 2007 at 12:00 am

Ian, you’re right. I thought it was clear I was referring to two different groups, but in case it wasn’t—I was (got it?). I would be deeply surprised to find the IMU as a viable or notable group in any form in Ferghana; HUT, on the other hand, is a quite viable socio-political movement with—again, you are right about this—proclamations of non-violence. They just had an international conference in, I believe, Indonesia.

That being said, Laurence, England is not Muslim-majority. I was referring to the genesis of radical Islam as a mass popular movement in the Middle East, where a huge reason for its popularity was that it represented a viable alternative to the western tyranny so many perceived (i.e. their America-backed dictators treating them brutally).

Europe is a totally different issue. There Islam is not filtering back in as the result of an organized political movement, but growing as a a sort of backlash against second generation immigrants in response to endemic and widespread marginalization and racism. When discussing European radicalism, it is important to note that there it is almost entirely the descendants of immigrants, not the immigrants themselves, who are most commonly radicalized.

Hrm. Come to think of it, maybe the common theme here is marginalization. That would apply to all three. Thoughts?

Ataman Rakin November 20, 2007 at 4:14 am

“They all had “legitimate grievances”…”

Well, as a matter of fact they had. And many people in the world still have. But perhaps in your scholar galatic you don’t know what it is to be/feel humiliated.

“where a huge reason for its popularity was that it represented a viable alternative to the western tyranny so many perceived”

Yes. And also, let’s face it: another factor is, that many ‘import’/‘Western’ ideologies (or associated with the West) have failed miserably in the Muslim world: nationalism, Communism and liberal democracy because the latter most often basically serves as a rethorical fig leaf/façade for crooked elites to be in the good books with the IFIs, Washington and Brussels or for grant-grabbing NGOs to get their donor budgets.

See, the grugde among militant Muslims is not, that Westerners are ‘not Muslims’ and ‘live differently’. It’s about the double standards (e.g. would Bollinger have been that rude to a scumbag like Karimov as he was to Ahmadi-Nejad?); the unconditional support for Israël with its pathetic Holocaust blackmail; the EU’s effeminate attitude towards Karimov; etc.

Laurence November 20, 2007 at 9:16 am

Josh, Hizb ut-Tahrir was headquartered in LONDON, not the Middle East…The educated cadre are not marginalized, they are the most assimilated and exposed to the West. The problem is that the West look like losers and weak right now–Bin Laden is still on the loose, the Taliban is back in Afghanistan, Hamas is in control of Gaza, bombs go off in London and Glasgow, Iraq is a mess. From a propaganda point of view, 9/11 was a success–it showed that an attack can take place on the center of the Great Satan and the perpetrators will get away to strike again, and again, and again…

When George Bush declared he would get “Bin Laden, Dead or Alive” and “If you are not with us, you are against us,” he established the rules of the game.

9/11 was not about Saddam Hussein, or Putin, Musharraf, Karimov, or even Ahmadinejad. Bin Laden is apparently still alive. That means, by Bush’s own declared standards, the US is losing, IMHO.

Brian November 20, 2007 at 1:21 pm

“From a propaganda point of view, 9/11 was a success–it showed that an attack can take place on the center of the Great Satan and the perpetrators will get away to strike again, and again, and again…”

I think 9/11 was a success because it showed that one spectacular terrorist attack could succeed in alienating America from its historical allies, drive a wedge between the western world and even secular Muslims, cause America to support torture and restrict due-process, and draw America into a war that’s sapping most political and military resources.

On top of all that 9/11 made Americans think that terrorism is the greatest potential threat to the country, instead of the upcoming power of China who will eventually be a more powerful country.

In short, America, through its bad choices has made 9/11 an overwhelming success. I shudder to think of how this world could be so much different now if we would have had a real smart administration.

Ian November 20, 2007 at 1:48 pm

I think it’s important to note here that Hizb ut-Tahrir had nothing to do with the attacks of 2001.

Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia are not terrorists. There’s some debate about whether they might take up militancy in the future (cf. Olivier Roy), but there’s no evidence for that at this point.

It was founded in the Middle East, and is currently in exile in London because the secular dictatorships of Central Asia and the Middle East feel that any political groups outside of their own elites are a threat, Islamic or not. There’s a lot not to like from my own Western point of view about this party, but terrorism has nothing to do with them, nor does Hamas, Bin Laden, Taliban, or any other bogeyman you’d like to name.

Laurence November 21, 2007 at 8:55 am

Ian, Has Hizb ut-Tahrir leadership produced a fatwa against supporters of Osama Bin Ladin, calling for its followers to turn them over to the police? I don’t think so… Please show me where Hizb ut-Tahrir is cooperating with British police in apprehending the 2000 suspected terrorists and their supporters in England and Scotland–or cooperating with authorities in other countries affected by terrorist attacks.

Until that happens, I don’t buy the claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a “peaceful” organization that has nothing to do with terrorism. Zayno Baran’s analysis that it is a “conveyor belt” for terrorism, based on shared Islamist extremist ideology as well as general support for the cause, is more a accurate description of its role. Here’s a link to August 27th, 2003 report from the BBC by Imran Khan predicting Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities would lead to terror attacks in Britain:

An influential British Muslim has told Newsnight that unless action is taken against an extreme Muslim group operating in the United Kingdom then we could soon be experiencing terrorist attacks along the lines of those in Baghdad and Jerusalem.

Hizb Ut Tahrir or HT is an Islamic splinter group, which is banned in many countries around the world. It operates freely in Britain.

But Newsnight has discovered that its website promotes racism and anti-Semitic hatred, calls suicide bombers martyrs, and urges Muslims to kill Jewish people….

I believe that if Hizb Ut Tahrir are not stopped at this stage, and we continue to let them politicise and pollute the youngsters minds and other gullible people minds, then what will happen in effect is that these terrorism acts and these suicide bombings that we hear going on around in foreign countries, we will actually start seeing these incidents happening outside our doorsteps.

Ian November 21, 2007 at 11:14 am


Absolutely right–and in the intervening 4 years since that BBC report was run, no Hizb ut-Tahrir related terrorism. Until there is something, I’m still right. I will be wrong, and will send you a box of chocolates, if your dire predictions come true.

Fact is, you can’t accuse someone of being a terrorist until they are one. Which means, they’ve actually done something bad. To “stop” Hizb ut-Tahrir is to act as the police of thought, of political beliefs, of ideologies that we might not totally disagree with. I find Ann Coulter reprehensible, and she’s said heinous things about Jews, but I defend her right to speak and think how she wants unless she commits a real crime in the real world. To do otherwise is to become a democro-fascist, claiming the mantle of a respectable enlightenment ideology while closing off disagreeable lines of thought.

Don’t worry about Hizb ut-Tahrir, there are much big problems in the world.

Ian November 21, 2007 at 11:16 am

Sorry, what i meant was “that we might not totally agree with.”

Laurence November 21, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Ian, Some Britons see a connection between Hizb ut-Tahrir and terror attacks in the UK. From the November 15th issue of the Guardian:

David Cameron gave a broad welcome to the national security package, including the checks at rail stations, but questioned how the battle for hearts and minds could be won without banning groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hizbullah in Britain.

Laurence November 21, 2007 at 5:49 pm

There’s also this from The Telegraph by Shiraz Maher:

An Islamist website recently uploaded a video in English titled ‘advice to Muslims in Britain,’ in which an al-Qa’eda affiliate praises the 7/7 attacks and calls on British Muslims to carry out more suicide attacks.

Criminalising those engaged in spreading that kind of message underscores the seriousness of the problem which, left unchallenged, will continue to grow.

Fear that the law might be used to curb legitimate debate or dissent is unfounded.

Shiraz Maher is a former member of the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and knew some of the men accused of the Glasgow car bomb attacks. He now works as a writer and broadcaster.

Ian November 21, 2007 at 7:15 pm


Your first example: just because David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, thinks HT should be banned in the UK doesn’t mean that they have had or do have any intention to use violence. In fact they haven’t, and they keep repeating that they won’t. Again, if they do, I’ll admit I was wrong.

Your second example: simply because Shiraz Maher went to school with the Glasgow bombers (as did everyone else at Cambridge University, when he knew them) does not mean that HT committed the bombings. In fact no one has ever presented any evidence to that end. Shiraz Maher himself never makes such a connection (so far as I have found in a cursory google) and he was in a position to know. The fact that he wrote an article about a posting on “an Islamist website” praising violence doesn’t say that it was on an HT website, and it wasn’t.

You need to make some finer distinctions. Sharpen those analytical blades and then come back. But, I thank you for raising some issues that I hadn’t heard about before–I don’t follow news closely enough from the UK apparently, and I find it sad that there’s a serious debate about silencing a still-legitimate political organization. Possibly that’s why there’s a tiny, intensely angry slice of Muslims there while in the US Muslims by and large still believe in the country they live in.

Laurence November 25, 2007 at 2:52 pm

Ian, The point of my postings was to counter the claim that dictatorship is the cause of the rise in Islamism–because the UK, home to the mother of Parliaments, is seeing an increase in Islamist activity. Therefore, Britain provides a counter-example to those who claim that democratization will decrease Islamist activity.

Further, that democratic political leaders such as David Cameron’s call for the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir in a democracy, as well as Islamists such as Shiraz Maher, indicates that it is legitimate to see Islamist ideology as a cause of Islamist terror.

Laurence November 25, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Ian, Contrary to your statement, Shiraz Maher explicityly states that he met Glasgow bombing suspect Bilal Abdulla through Hizb ut-Tahrir:

And so it was through my involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology of extremist political Islam that I came to befriend Bilal, the alleged would-be bomber. That’s why I believe it’s wrong to distinguish between “extremism” and “violent extremism” as the government has been doing in recent months. The two are inextricably intertwined.

Here’s the URL:

Joshua Foust November 25, 2007 at 3:58 pm

Laurence, let’s clear up what I was saying: I was saying political repression tends to encourage radicalism. Dictatorships most commonly provide it; England, which has no formal right to free speech and excessive libel laws, can as well.

Ian November 25, 2007 at 5:10 pm


No, I don’t see why the opinions of two individuals “indicates” that your argument holds any water.

And read Shiraz Maher’s story closely. It says that he, Shiraz, was given the job by HT to recruit Bilal, a fellow student at Cambridge:

Like myself, Bilal didn’t have any non-Muslim friends and the circle of Muslims he chose to socialise with was small and selective. But he certainly trusted and respected us [Hizb ut-Tahrir]. I think this was because he recognised we shared the same ultimate vision as him for Iraq and the wider Muslim world. We only differed over our choice of method.

Bilal was not a member of HT.

And as Josh has pointed out, you’re changing your terms mid-argument. At first you say that Hizb ut-Tahrir belongs in the same sentence with al-Qaeda, Saddam, et alia. I challenge you on that, and you say that unless Hizb ut-Tahrir “issues a fatwa” (not sure they do that sort of thing in the first place, but maybe I’m wrong) against al-Qaeda, or they publicly cooperate in the unmasking of agents of radical Islam (such publicity, though, would ruin any undercover investigations), then they are still suspect and worthy of banning and banishment.

Now you are claiming that all you originally meant was that “Islamic ideology [is] a cause of Islamist terror.” No one had ever made the claim that ideology doesn’t play a role in terrorism on this post’s thread, and it would be idiotic to make a claim like that. For instance, some kind of ideology acted as a cause, among other causes, when members of a radical (Christian) militia blew up a federal building in Oklahoma.

To be clear: HT hasn’t committed any terrorist attacks.

Laurence November 25, 2007 at 9:02 pm

Ian, I’m sure this won’t persuade you, but here’s a recent Los Angeles Times article that notes links between Hizb ut-Tahrir and terrorism. Headline “Police target Italy-based terror network”:

MADRID – Police around Europe arrested at least 14 suspected Islamic extremists yesterday in an operation targeting an Italy-based network that allegedly trained and dispatched suicide bombers from Europe to battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, authorities said….

…Nonetheless, the two-year probe by the Carabinieri reiterated the front-line role of extremists in Europe’s North African diaspora in providing fighters to Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Iraq and, increasingly, to the Pakistani-Afghan region where foreign jihadis battle alongside the resurgent Taliban. And the case shows the connections between the Iraqi and South Asian combat zones, investigators said.

“Today, everybody wants to go to Afghanistan,” said a senior Italian anti-terror official who, like many officials involved with investigating sensitive terrorism cases, requested anonymity. “In this case, the route was to cross Iraq and go through Iran to Afghanistan. But the most interesting thing is the proof of previous training in Italy. It was mostly theoretical. They showed them how to make a little bomb, how to get to the jihad zone, what to do when you arrive.”

Italian investigators coordinated with American counterparts, providing intelligence that enabled US troops in Iraq to capture some of the recruits who arrived from Italy, the anti-terror official said.

The case has another interesting and enigmatic aspect. The suspects in Reggio Emilia belong to Hizb ut Tahrir, a disciplined and structured fundamentalist group with roots in the Middle East and a strong presence in Northern Europe and Central Asia.

Despite its radical calls for establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate and virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric, Hizb ut Tahrir insists it is nonviolent.


Ian November 27, 2007 at 9:33 pm


I’m willing to go along with you, assuming we see something to corroborate this article. Let’s keep an eye out.

In the meantime I sent an email to the author of that article, Sebastian Rotella, LA Times Paris bureau chief, which is yet unanswered. I asked him whether he got the Hizb ut Tahrir connection from another news outlet or from his own source. Until he answers me, I’m assuming he’s getting it from this kind of source. If you read the Italian press, they make it seem like a) Hizb ut Tahrir and al-Qaeda are closely related (not true) and b) Hizb ut Tahrir claimed responsibility for the London 7/7 attacks (not true).

So, if Mr. Rotella was reading Italian papers, and didn’t check any deeper with his own sources, his article doesn’t do anything except to repeat a mistake.

Ian December 3, 2007 at 12:38 pm


I’ve heard back from the LA Times article’s author, and he says his sources were some Italian intelligence officers. In his message to me, he says this:

As you point out, if HT were involved in a network sending fighters to Iraq, that would be a significant shift. But as the story also pointed out, some of the Italian investigators have their doubts about the strength of the evidence that the HT group in Reggio Emilia were directly involved. It appears they had some contacts with the network, which is not unusual as you know. Previous cases in Britain and elsewhere show that HT members sometimes associate with violent jihadists and that former HT members join violent groups. But I am not sure this Italian case amounts to the smoking gun of a HT-terror link that many experts have been looking for in recent years. We will see what the investigation brings.

The version of the article you quoted from, which appeared in the Boston Globe, doesn’t contain the caveats the author has in his email to me–not sure why that happened. Nonetheless it looks like the HT link to the Italy arrests is not yet proven, and may be a case of association but not membership directed by a violent leadership.

So, I remain available for convincing, but I am not yet convinced that HT is involved in violence. This is all not to say that I support HT’s goals, which I clearly don’t, but that there’s no public evidence that they’re waging war against the West.

Ian December 3, 2007 at 12:46 pm


Here’s the original LA Times story–note that Rotella’s caveats DO appear there, and were cut out of the Globe article you quoted from.

14 terrorism suspects held

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