The radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir America (HTA) will host a conference in Chicago on July 11 to hype the virtues of an Islamic state ruled according to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. The group launched an online social media campaign to promote the event; one that serves as a prime example of how extremists are able to expose the mainstream to their ideology. HTA hosted a similar conference outside of Chicago last year, which drew about 500 participants. This year, the campaign to promote the conference is more comprehensive, and the group expects many more participants as a result; it has booked an 11,000-square-foot ballroom at the Chicago Marriott Oak Brook that can accommodate more than one thousand.
HTA is part of a worldwide organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which works towards the establishment of an Islamic state (Khalifah) in a Muslim country. Once a government and a military have been installed, it intends to spread Islam to the rest of the world. HT condones violence against Western troops in Muslim countries and advocates the eradication of Israel, but has so far maintained a non-violent approach to its objectives.
9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a former HT adherent. He, like others, joined a militant organization after becoming impatient with HT's softer methods, which is why some observers have labeled HT "a conveyor belt to terrorism."
A component of HTA's strategy is to instill a sense of alienation among American Muslims so that they will turn away from their country and instead identify themselves as members of the Ummah (worldwide Muslim community). HTA tells Muslims not to vote or to embrace the culture of the "unbelievers." However, HTA will indulge in socializing online in order to generate support.
2010 Propaganda Campaign
Social media is more popular than ever. The web is no longer simply a series of static billboards for celebrities and corporations that do not allow for two-way interaction. Social media lets users generate content, creating a sense of propriety. Facebook and Twitter provide instant satisfaction derived from the approval of peers in response to the sharing of ideas and experiences. Peer endorsements are an effective element of political propaganda and marketing campaigns.
On June 5, HTA launched its campaign to publicize the "Emerging World Order" conference with a video for YouTube. The video promises the "dawn of a new era" with "Khilafah on the horizon." An intense musical score accompanies the graphics. Likely, the soundtrack was created from software, such as ProScores, which is specifically designed to engineer "hard-hitting" "tension-building" moments in promotional videos. Music has long-been valued as an effective element of political propaganda campaigns because it can instantly frame perceptions by triggering emotions.
Simultaneous to the video release, HTA created a Facebook page to promote the conference. The page already has more than 2,000 "fans." HTA asks fans to swap out their existing profile picture for the graphic of the event flier. The image comes with an attached caption saying, "Get involved! Make this your Profile Picture till July 11." As the number of people using the flier as a profile picture increases so will the number of people receiving information about the upcoming conference. Thus, the pool of potential HTA supporters expands.
In addition, HTA requests Muslims to change their "political views" on their Facebook profile to "Islamic Khilafah" (as opposed to Democrat, say) to indicate their support for HTA's goals.
The Facebook page also provides a link to a lecture called "Islamic Caliphate vs. Democracy" by the al-Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is infamous for providing spiritual guidance to several American homegrown terrorists, including Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.
HT supporters in the U.S. and around the world have "Tweeted" news of the upcoming Chicago conference. "Tweets" are easily "ReTweeted," extending the reach of the message far beyond the circle of supporters already known to HTA.
Over the past year we have seen U.S. citizens radicalized to the point of committing acts of terrorism. While HT has not been tied to any of these cases, its objectives and ideology are consistent with many Islamist terrorist organizations. The group demonizes the U.S. and its allies, it seeks to make American Muslims feel disaffection towards their country, and it does not fully condemn acts of terrorism; rather, it places blame on the victim society for bringing violence upon itself.
How an extremist group reaches its audience is key to understanding how radicalization occurs. While HTA is spreading word about its conference, it is simultaneously exposing new audiences to its ideology and furthering its strategy to isolate American Muslims from the rest of society. Isolation and disaffection are first steps along the path to radicalization--the same path that may eventually lead to terrorism.