Last year, I spent two months investigating Hizb ut-Tahrir, Britain’s – and perhaps the world’s – largest radical Islamic group, which Tony Blair announced last week is to be banned.
I expected Hizb ut-Tahrir to be highly secretive and closed. But after a month of negotiations, the leadership committee decided to grant me exclusive access to the organisation’s inner sanctum. I was going to be allowed to sit in on one of their indoctrination cells, or “study circles” as they call them.
Guided by an experienced cell mentor, new recruits would study the organisation’s ideology for two years before being given full membership. These were the cells that US think-tanks such as the Nixon Centre and the Heritage Foundation had accused of churning out some of the world’s most wanted terrorists and ideologues.
Zeyno Baran, the Nixon Centre’s director of International Security and Energy Programmes, had given me a warning before I attended. “Hizb produces thousands of manipulated brains, which then ‘graduate’ from Hizb and become members of groups like al-Qa’ida,” she said. “Even if Hizb does not itself engage in terrorist acts, because of the ideology it provides, it acts like a conveyor belt for terrorists.”…
There are a few examples of the conveyor belt in action in Britain. Omar Sharif, from Derby, tried to blow himself up outside a Tel Aviv nightclub in 2002. When MI5 searched his home they found plenty of Hizb literature. Sharif had also been leafleting for al-Muhajiroun in Derby only a few weeks earlier.
Omar Bakri, the head of al-Muhajiroun, led Hizb in the mid-1980s. He first brought it to national prominence after he called for the head of John Major during the 1990-91 Gulf War. “Major is a legitimate target,” he told the Daily Star. “If anyone gets the opportunity to assassinate him, I don’t think they should save it.” Those remarks got him detained for 48 hours.
After this episode it is thought Hizb’s central leadership, based in Jordan, decided to change the British branch’s image so that it could appear as the mainstream voice of the Muslim community. Bakri left to set up al-Muhajiroun, but he took the same literature and reading material. Only the strategy – one of explicit violence and jihad – was to be different.