By Cynthia Farahat
Middle East Quarterly Spring 2017
What to make of the Muslim Brotherhood
(MB)? During the Obama years, it became commonplace for the U.S. administration
and its Western acolytes to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate option
to "more radical" Muslim groups. Thus, for example, U.S. director of
National Intelligence James Clapper incredibly described the organization as
"largely secular" while John Esposito of Georgetown University
claimed that "Muslim Brotherhood affiliated movements and parties have
been a force for democratization and stability in the Middle East."
On the other hand, in 2014, the United Arab
Emirates formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood and its local and
international affiliates, including the U.S. based Council on American-Islamic
Relations (CAIR), as inter-national terrorist groups. A British government
review commissioned the same year similarly asserted that
parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a
highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism. Both as an ideology and
as a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who
have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism.
In the United States, Sen. Ted Cruz
(R-Tex.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) have recently introduced
legislation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. In
February 2016, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee approved a house bill that
calls on the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign
terrorist organization. In July 2016, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) introduced the
"Naming the Enemy within Homeland Security Act," a bill that
prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from funding or collaborating
with organizations or individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The question is—which view is correct?
Without doubt, the second one is. The Muslim Brotherhood has been a
militaristic organization since its inception and has operated as a terrorist
entity for almost a century. It influenced the establishment of most modern
Sunni terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (GI)
Hamas, and the Islamic State (ISIS). These organizations have either been
founded by current or former Brotherhood members or have been directly
inspired, indoctrinated, or recruited by MB members and literature. Contrary to
what the MB propagates to Westerners, MB violence is not just in the past but
is an ongoing activity.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928
by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), an Egyptian schoolteacher and sometime watch
repairer from a small rural town north of Cairo. Reared in a deeply devout
household steeped in the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence popular among
Wahhabi and Salafi jihadists, Banna engaged in Islamist activities from a
young age, joining a local group that intimidated and harassed Christians and
non-observing Muslims in his hometown. He was also fascinated by secret
societies, cults, and fraternal orders, which flourished in Egypt at the time,
and this obsession drove him to form the Brotherhood as a fraternity cult with
its own secret militia—al-Tanzim al-Khass (the Special Apparatus, also known as
the Secret Apparatus)—charged with strategizing, funding, and executing
military training and terror activities.
During the first few decades of its
existence, the Special Apparatus carried out numerous acts of political
violence in Egypt, notably the 1947 assassination of Judge Ahmed Khazinder Bey
and the 1948 assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Nuqrashi Pasha, who
reportedly considered outlawing the MB. At that time, according to a secret
U.S. intelligence memorandum, the Brotherhood's "commando units" were
estimated to possess "secret caches of arms ... reported to have 60,000 to
70,000 rifles." This military build-up was ac-companied by
infiltration of the Egyptian army, including the conspiratorial group of Free
Officers, who in July 1952 overthrew the monarchy in a bloodless coup.
The Secret Apparatus was not only involved
in assassinations but also carried out a large wave of terrorism and
bombings. Thus, for example, on Christmas Eve 1945 it bombed the British
Club in Egypt, and in December 1946 bombed eight police stations in Cairo. Two years
later, the Brotherhood bombed several Jewish homes in Cairo and many Jewish
owned businesses and cinemas. The Brotherhood also bombed trains in Sharqia
and Ismailia, as well as the King George Hotel in Ismailia. In a 1948 raid on
one of the organization's Cairo offices, the police confiscated 165 bombs.
After Banna's assassination in 1949, Hassan
Hudaybi, who succeeded him as MB general guide (al-Murshid al-Amm), claimed to
have dissolved the Secret Apparatus in order to ease the government's persecution
of the movement, only to be arrested in 1965 alongside other MB leaders for
forming a new militia that engaged in military training with a view to
assassinating President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hudaybi managed to escape with
a three-year prison sentence (the MB's foremost ideologue Sayyed Qutb was
executed in 1966 together with two other leaders); his false denial of the MB's
military wing was to become a standard tactic of the Brotherhood to date.
This denial notwithstanding, the late 1960s
and early 1970s saw the formation of a number of MB terror groups under
ostensibly independent banners. The first such group was Gama'at al-Muslimin,
commonly known as Takfir wa-l-Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration), formed by
two leaders of the Secret Apparatus released from prison: Shukri Mustafa and
Sheikh Ali Ismael, brother of MB leader Fattah Ismael who was executed
alongside Qutb. Another terrorist group created by the Brotherhood at the
time was al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (GI, the Islamic group), which was responsible
for the October 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Both
groups were founded by active leaders of the Brotherhood, who never claimed to
have left the organization or their leadership positions therein. Indeed, in
his last speech, one month before his assassination, Sadat equated the GI with
the Brotherhood and expressed regret for having released many Brotherhood
operatives from prison. 
During the 1990s, the Egyptian authorities
battled against a sustained wave of Islamist terrorism involving attacks on
government officials and the country's Coptic minority, the murdering of
foreign tourists as well as an audacious attempt on the life of President Hosni
Mubarak while he was in Ethiopia in June 1995. In the same year, GI's
leader and MB spiritual authority, Omar Abdel Rahman, known as "The Blind
Sheikh," and nine others were convicted of seditious conspiracy in
connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre. Abdel Rahman is currently
serving a life sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina, and in Muhammad
Morsi's first speech as Egyptian president in Tahrir Square, he called for
Abdel Rahman's release and acknowledged the sheikh's family who was present in
No less important was the formation of the
movement's International Apparatus by Banna's son-in-law Said Ramadan. Having
fled Egypt to Saudi Arabia in 1954, Ramadan moved to Geneva in 1958 where he
established the International Apparatus under the guidance of Mustafa Mashour,
head of the Secret Apparatus, future MB general guide, and author of its
militant manifesto "Jihad Is the Way." The International
Apparatus was not fully operational until the mid-1980s when Mashour, who fled
Egypt after Sadat's assassination, settled in West Germany in 1986 where he
re-established the Apparatus.
The International Apparatus is not just
responsible for the Brotherhood's public operations, but is also involved in
operating and funding terrorist groups responsible for attacks on American
soil. Thus, for example, Chakib Ben Makhlouf, one of the most prominent leaders
of the MB's Geneva office, is also the president of the Federation of Islamic
Organizations in Europe. He has been described by Egyptian member of parliament
and terrorism expert Abdel Rahim Ali as "one of the most dangerous
operatives of the Brotherhood's International Apparatus." Likewise,
according to Egyptian general Fouad Allam, who investigated the MB's operations
in the 1960s-70s, the Geneva office funnelled funds that helped establish
The International Apparatus's most critical
mission, though, has been to infiltrate, subvert, and recruit operatives from
within the armies, governments, educational systems, and intelligence agencies
of the MB's targeted states, especially in the West, in what is called
This term dates to a 1991 document titled
The Explanatory Memorandum, drafted in a meeting that outlined the Muslim
Brotherhood's strategic goals for North America and entered as evidence in the
Holy Land Foundation (HLF) terror funding trial in 2008—the largest terror
financing case in U.S. history. In 2009, five MB leaders were charged with
providing material support to Hamas, the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch and a
designated foreign terrorist organization.
The 1980s and 1990s were the two most
important decades for the "civilization jihad." During this time,
Hamas was transformed from an essentially missionary and charitable
organization seeking to win Palestinian hearts and minds into a fully-fledged
terror group during the first intifada (December 1987-September 1993), and the
seeds were sown for the advent of al-Qaeda through the newly-formed Maktab
al-Khidamat (MAK, the Services Bureau), also known as Maktab Khidamat
al-Mujahidin al-Arab (the Services Bureau of Arab Jihadists) and the Afghan
As jihadists flocked to Afghanistan and
Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation, the Brotherhood was busy running recruitment,
jihadist services through its MAK offices throughout the Middle East. In 1984,
MB operative Abdullah Azzam established the MAK office in Jordan. Azzam's
philosophy helped establish and organize the Brotherhood's "global
jihad" movement, which earned him the alias, "The Father of Global
Jihad." No less important, this philosophy inspired GI and Egyptian
Islamic Jihad (EIJ) to try to export their terrorism and greatly inspired Osama
bin Laden, whom Azzam taught at a Saudi university.
nature of al-Qaeda's current relationship with the Brotherhood is somewhat
unclear. While Zawahiri argued that bin Laden's affiliation with the MB was
severed in the 1980s due to differences over the anti-Soviet Afghanistan
campaign, this claim was discounted by Tharwat Kherbawy, the highest
ranking MB member to have defected from the organization, and also by
evidence suggesting that the Brotherhood is still organizationally involved
with al-Qaeda. Thus, for example, after Morsi's July 2013 ouster from power,
Zawahiri issued a videotaped statement on his behalf where he criticized
Egyptian Salafi jihadists for not formally joining the Muslim Brotherhood's
Freedom and Justice Party to help it uphold Shari'a law. In another
statement, Zawahiri criticized the deposed MB president for having played
politics with opponents, but eventually prayed for his release and
supported him while he was facing trial for inciting the killing of regime
opponents and for espionage for foreign militant groups including Hamas,
Hezbollah, and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp.
A Political Party or a Jihadi Group?
The Obama administration's stubborn support
for the Morsi regime and its tireless attempts to cast the MB as a moderate
organization are preposterous—not only because the Brotherhood is the bedrock
of some of the worst terror groups in today's world but also because violence
is endemic to the movement's raison d'être: restoring the caliphate via violent
jihad. Were the Brotherhood to give up this foundational goal, it would lose
its legitimacy and sole reason for existence. This is why Banna used military terminology
in structuring the MB, calling the organization "Allah's
battalion," a term used to this very day to denote the MB's governing
core; this is why the current Brotherhood leadership includes operatives who
personally engaged in violent jihad and terror activities such as Abdel Moneim
Furthermore, the organization's Secret
Apparatus remains intact and operational with new recruits required to undergo
military training by such militias as the 95 Brigade, which was established
in 1995 and which played an active role in the January 2011 riots leading to
Mubarak's downfall. In a series of interviews with al-Jazeera TV, Osama Yassin,
a former minister in Morsi's cabinet, revealed that members of the brigade
engaged in the abduction, beating, and torture of "thugs" and threw
Molotov cocktails at their opponents. Asked by an Egyptian newspaper to
clarify these revelations, the MB dismissed them as a joke. Still, the
brigade operatives were later implicated in the killing of anti-Brotherhood
protestors. In March 2014, for example, two operatives were sentenced to death
after an online video clip showed them killing a teenager by throwing him from
According to the Brotherhood's own
standards and internal bylaws, there are ten solid, unchangeable Thawabit
(precepts) in their organization's bai'a (Islamic oath of allegiance) process.
The fourth of these precepts is violent jihad and martyrdom, which the
Brotherhood states is an obligation of every individual Muslim, as well as the
collective obligation of their organization.
The current Brotherhood leadership includes
operatives who personally engaged in violent jihad and terror activities.
Unfortunately, many American specialists
either receive foreign funding or are otherwise oblivious to these facts and
actively engage in a disinformation campaign. For example, a Brookings
Institute article turned the meaning of the "fourth precept" of the
Brotherhood's bylaws on its head, stating that it stipulated that "during
the process of establishing democracy and relative political freedom, the
Muslim Brotherhood is committed to abide by the rules of democracy and its
Reality, of course, was quite different.
When after Mubarak's downfall the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in a sham
presidential election, which brought its operative Mohamed Morsi to the
presidential palace, its violent and undemocratic rule triggered, in short
notice, mass protests throughout the country that brought millions of
protestors to the streets and enabled the military to overthrow Morsi in a
Indeed, the sheer brutality of ISIS and
various Brotherhood-affiliated or inspired terror groups across the Middle East
has led to the advent of a mainstream Islamic reformist movement that draws on
vastly more popular support than the Brotherhood itself. This unprecedented
revival of a reform-oriented movement has received too little attention in the
West. For example, Islam Behery, one of the movement's heroic leaders, was
incarcerated for a year for blasphemy for insulting al-Azhar University and the
Sunni doctrine on his television show. For two years, that show had been
dedicated daily to exposing the brutality and terrorism of Sunni doctrine while
offering a non-theocratic, liberal interpretation of Islam that pushes for
separation of mosque and state. Behery received a presidential pardon in
December 2016, which was unprecedented in Egyptian history.
Another supporter of reformation and freedom
of thought is Ibrahim Issa, a popular Egyptian commentator, television host,
and owner and editor-in-chief of the independent opinion newspaper Al-Maqal.
Earlier this year, Issa announced that he would end his TV show due to
"current events," kindling speculation that the cancellation was
related to Saudi pressure on the Egyptian regime because of Issa's criticism of
the kingdom's violent Wahhabi sect. Issa's reformist stance has placed him
on terrorist hit lists since 1992, and he has been living under tight security
ever since. His opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has made him one of the
organization's high profile targets, and in 2015, he became the subject of an
official fatwa declaring him an "infidel."
Another heroic figure of Islamic reform
currently facing the possibility of incarceration for blasphemy is the popular
author and prominent secular figure Sayyed Qemani. His sin: stating that
al-Azhar University should be designated a terrorist organization. Behery,
Qemani, and their like have the support of the most mainstream media figures in
Egypt and across the Middle East, and they have dramatically changed the
Islamic political discourse. Yet Western audiences have almost never heard of
their heroic efforts.
The war of ideas is highly dynamic in
today's Middle East. The vast majority of the region's peaceful Muslims are
marginalized by Western support for the Brotherhood and the West's refusal to
designate the MB as a terrorist organization.
The deadly Brotherhood cult is responsible
for almost a century of terror since the young Banna engaged in the
intimidation and harassment of his Christian and moderate Muslim neighbours.
Since then, the Brotherhood established Hamas as its Palestinian wing. Three
Brotherhood activists established al-Qaeda. Brotherhood leaders, from inside
their prisons founded al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Brotherhood members recruited the founder of Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad who
started the trend of video decapitations, and one of its former operatives is
currently acting as the caliph of Islamic State. The MB also has other
connections to organizations on the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist
The majority of the region's peaceful
Muslims are marginalized by Western support for the Brotherhood.
Neither Washington, nor any capital, can
hope to counter Islamic terrorism successfully without allying with Muslim
figures fighting on the forefront of the battle of ideas. Washington can give
these moderate Muslims a voice by designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a
The Brotherhood has stated its intention to
destroy the West's "miserable house" by infiltrating Western society
and institutions and subverting them from the inside. Designating the
Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization will stop its operatives
from reaching sensitive positions in the intelligence community and in other
powerful U.S. government positions. It will also stop Brotherhood operatives in
the United States from funding terrorism operations worldwide.
Cynthia Farahat, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow and columnist for
Al-Maqal daily newspaper, is currently working on a book about the Muslim
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