hroughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump voiced beliefs about national security that many Americans have shared since, at least, the early days of the Obama administration. The inability to speak honestly and coherently about the enemy and its ideology, Trump argued, has repeatedly led to failure: terror attacks at home that were not stopped; wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria that were not won.
Millions of Americans agree with Trump’s assessment, believing the Obama White House had, for reasons of political correctness, mischaracterized the terrorist threat, treating Islam as a secondary feature instead of the defining one. Any such assessment, however, necessarily implies this corollary: an accurate representation of the enemy based on its ideology would indicate a far larger threat to U.S. interests, encompassing more of the Islamic world than previously admitted by either of the past two presidential administrations.
On national security, Trump has a mandate from the American people to expand the focus of the Obama years—which fixates on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, all of whom seek to forcibly impose an Islamic state—to a more comprehensive understanding of the enemy and the threat it poses. “We can beat them,” Trump’s nominee for National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (Ret.), told Fox News in September, “but we have to decide that this is an enemy first.” This more expansive understanding, then, centers on an ideology that promotes implementing an Islamic political order as the sole legitimate method of religious and political expression.
As articulated by prominent Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the primary preoccupation of Islamist movements is “Islamic Awakening,” a revivalist strategy activating Muslims throughout the world to impose totalitarian Islamic law—first within a given territory, a Caliphate, then across the world. The imposition of Islamic law means restricting free speech and persecuting minority and non-Muslim communities. These goals being antithetical to liberal democracy, the success of Islamist political movements are inherently destructive of America’s vital interests.
Ideological Threat Focus: Islamism, Not Just ISIS
Among those who have supported a wider national security threat focus, opinions differ as to whether practitioners of this ideology—call it political Islam or Islamism—represent an aberration of Islam generally; a strain among many strains of Islamic thought; or whether it is, as Islamists themselves claim, the only faithful representation of Islam’s historical and legal practices. But few dispute the entity most responsible for advancing the notion of political Islam is the global, secretive organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the new administration’s counterterrorism efforts are likely to focus on it. Trump campaign advisor Walid Phares recently indicated to an Arab-language newspaper that the incoming administration will designate this Islamist group a foreign terrorist organization, the goal of a year-long legislative effort led by Senator Ted Cruz. While the House version of the bill, authored by Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, easily passed the House Judiciary Committee, Republican congressional leadership has stymied its passage. Reports from staffers indicate that establishment Republicans have expressed concerns about how such a designation would impact U.S. policy, both at home and abroad.
One difficulty in making the case for the Muslim Brotherhood’s designation has been a fundamental lack of knowledge about its role in waging terrorism. Since 1928, when it was founded by Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian, the Brotherhood has kept terrorist violence—or the threat of such violence—within its doctrinal toolkit, maintaining close ties to other sympathetic terror groups. As the 9/11 Commission reported, the Brotherhood’s comfortable association with violent jihadist terror stretches from establishing clandestine “Special Apparatus” terror cells in the 1930s—which are still active—to the deep influence of Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb upon al-Qaeda.
The Brotherhood also constitutes the ideological wellspring for nearly every current jihadist organization. As al-Qaradawi notes in Islamic Education and Hassan al-Banna, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that invigorated and promoted a view of Jihad that had lain dormant” “The movement of Ikhwanul Muslimoon (The Muslim Brothers) breathed new life into jihad: giving it a place of honor and prominence in writings; stressing its importance in lectures, meetings, and songs; and asserting its sovereignty over individual and collective life.” Where al-Banna provided inspiration and organization, Sayyid Qutb provided the roadmap. His 1964 book Milestones operationalized a plan for the reestablishment of totalitarian Islamic law through a skillful mixture of indoctrination and physical violence, all pegged to long-established concepts in Islamic law.
Any move in Washington against the Muslim Brotherhood faces, even more than a lack of knowledge, intense ideological resistance. For decades, a bipartisan American foreign policy consensus has endorsed engagement with and promotion of Islamists in an attempt to use them as a counterweight, to either other Islamic terror groups or larger geopolitical adversaries.
Seeking to engage Muslim Brotherhood officials or franchises has a long historical pedigree within our foreign policy establishment. As Ian Johnson documented in his outstanding history, A Mosque in Munich, America first turned to Islamists in the early days of the Cold War in order to nurture alternatives to the Soviets. During that time, however, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment seemed to recognize that, ultimately, the long-term objectives of the Islamists were both anti-democratic and harmful to American national interests. An internal analysis from the period noted that leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Said Ramadan—then a guest in the Eisenhower White House who was backed by the CIA—was “a fascist” and obsessed with seizing power.
Unfortunately, such a blunt assessment of the U.S. government’s Islamist interlocutors seems as quaint today as a 1950s TV commercial. By 2009 skepticism of Islamists’ long-term goals had been thoroughly abandoned, as President Obama formally announced the full-throated promotion of political Islam as the legitimate expression of democratic will throughout the Middle East.
For the Obama administration, the Islamists’ goals, motives, and doctrines were immaterial. It followed that spasms of violent Islamic terrorism are merely the product of authoritarian societies in the Middle East and the citizens’ attendant lack of freedom to pursue their political aspirations peacefully. The most productive response, the foreign-policy class reasoned, was to encourage authoritarian rule by these countries’ leading opposition. Of course, then as now, almost all Islamist parties in the Middle East are either formally or ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Logic seemed to dictate, then, that support for democracy would, necessarily, translate into de facto support for various local tribunes of political Islam. Since Islamists were the immediate beneficiaries of a democratization policy, the administration was disposed to consider nearly all Islamist movements “moderate.”
Nevertheless, a bipartisan consensus on this issue turned this theory into a touchstone concept of Obama administration policy. Promoting Islamist groups has, over time, come to define the American national interest.
Reaping the Whirlwind
The failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East that Trump articulated on the campaign trail follow from these assumptions about political Islam. The Obama administration’s promotion of Islamism has not only failed to deliver its intended results, but encouraged terrorism, both international and domestic, while destabilizing Egypt, Libya, Syria and other regions vital to America. Long-time Sunni allies panicked as they saw the spread of the Islamists—whom they had once funded to operate against the West—now threatening, with implicit U.S. support, their own rule. Saudi Arabia banned Muslim Brotherhood materials from schools, and the United Arab Emirates designated numerous Brotherhood fronts, including ones operating in the United States, as terrorist entities.
Where the wave of political Islam met success, it was short-lived. Rather than promoting good governance and ending corruption, the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt led to a rapid expansion of jihad in the Sinai, with the Brotherhood leaders’ tacit support. The triumphant Islamists spent more time establishing Islamic law and targeting Coptic Christians than providing desperately needed hard currency, natural gas, and food to the afflicted Egyptian people. The Brotherhood and other Islamists rose to prominence in Libya with the assistance of al-Qaeda-linked fighters, but could not maintain power democratically, rejecting the Libyan election result that favored their political opponents. The resulting civil war has made that country fertile grounds for both al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. In Syria, despite Western backing, Brotherhood-linked militias continue to insist upon close ties and cooperation with al-Qaeda’s local affiliates. And while the Islamic State has publicly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for its relationship with the West, Israeli and Egyptian intelligence officials say the Islamic State in fact receives support from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood for its attacks in the Sinai.
Here in the United States, law enforcement has been overwhelmed by hundreds of terror cases. While the focus of the media and the Obama administration has been on the Islamic State and its ability to influence potential supporters via the internet, few have noted the repeated appearance of Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Centers and organizations in attacks in Garland, Texas, San Bernardino, and Chattanooga, as well as in connection to several would-be Islamic State fighters who were caught before they could act.
It appears the new administration understands this error, and will correct it. At the Heritage Foundation last May, Secretary of Defense nominee General James Mattis asked the blunt but essential question: “Is political Islam in America’s best interests?” He went on to demonstrate that the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian theocracy (respectively, political Islam’s primary Sunni and Shia embodiments) were inimical to our well-being. President-elect Trump’s nomination of Mattis suggests he holds the same view.
From their service under President Obama both Generals Mattis and Flynn understand the mistaken premise of the outgoing administration’s engagement with political Islam: the unfalsifiable wish that, through participating in the democratic process, Islamists will be transformed from a source of anti-American terrorism into a bulwark against their more militant brethren. Despite the dangerous results of this hypothesis, the Obama administration viewed it as a way to simultaneously promote democracy and redirect militants’ energies from terrorist to politics. Consequently, even domestic Islamists stopped being the targets of counterterror investigations, and were treated instead as partners in “Countering Violent Extremism” programs.
Is the Muslim Brotherhood “Too Big to Fail”?
While the Bush Administration was engaged in a military and foreign policy struggle in the Middle East, it was also investigating domestic Islamist activity. Following the 9/11 attacks, investigations and prosecutions repeatedly touched upon individuals and groups in the United States affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. A careful study of these early cases revealed that the Brotherhood provided the ideological basis for jihadist violence, but also material support. In the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) case, for example, the U.S. government outlined a decades long plan by the Muslim Brotherhood to provide material support for Hamas. There were other instances:
convicting the Islamic African Relief Agency led by individuals linked to the Brotherhood, and closing it for funding al-Qaeda;
the U.S. Treasury department designated numerous Muslim Brotherhood organizations for terror finance, including the Yusuf al-Qaradawi-led Hamas funding network known as the Union of the Good; Yemeni Brotherhood leader and bin Laden mentor Abdul Majeed Al Zindani; wealthy Saudi businessman and suspected terror financier Yasin al-Qadi, who was linked to al-Qaeda and Hamas finance networks; and Youssef Nada, known as the Muslim Brotherhood’s “foreign minister” and his al-Taqwa bank, listed for facilitating cash transfers to al-Qaeda.
Not only did each of these cases, and many others like them, involve Muslim Brothers, but the interlocking web of conspirators and co-conspirators makes clear that that the Muslim Brothers are not a cog in the Islamist terror machine—they are the engineers who designed and run it.
Law enforcement soon found that some of these cases were political hot potatoes. Many of the subjects were wealthy, politically connected, well-regarded religious figures, or perceived as prominent within the Muslim American community. At fundraising events held at many of the most prominent Islamic Centers around the country, for example, the Holy Land Foundation successfully solicited millions in donations for the violent jihad being waged by the designated terrorist group Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological offshoot in the West Bank and Gaza. This happened with the knowing cooperation of some of the most prominent and influential Muslims in the country. By late 2008, the Bush Justice Department would prove at trial that many of these organizations and individuals constituted a conspiracy to fund Hamas. Prosecutors would label 306 of these as “unindicted co-conspirators” in the terror-funding scheme, listing organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); as well as individuals like onetime HLF employee Kifah Mustapha and prodigious Hamas fundraiser Mohamed al-Hanooti.
In the wake of the Holy Land Foundation case, those who take the Islamist ideological threat seriously believed that secondary prosecutions targeting Muslim Brotherhood leaders and co-conspirators intimately involved in the Hamas funding scheme would be a crippling blow to domestic Islamist terror networks. But there were no secondary prosecutions. There’s some debate whether those prosecutions were squashed for political reasons by the incoming Obama administration, or by career Department of Justice officials. Regardless, the absence of follow-on cases against unindicted co-conspirators left in place a vast infrastructure that provided millions in hard currency—as well the equivalent of millions of dollars in media and public policy assistance—to terrorist groups. Even now, much of the evidence acquired by the government against the Muslim Brotherhood and its network in the United States—a large portion of which was entered into evidence in the Holy Land Foundation trial—remains classified. Despite multiple requests in the name of legislative oversight, the Obama Justice Department has taken pains to prevent anyone, including Congress, examining it.
Perhaps the government considered the Muslim Brotherhood network in the U.S. “too big to fail.” For example, a federal judge noted that the government supplied “ample evidence” to link a Muslim Brotherhood organization like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) to the terror group Hamas. Yet ISNA is affiliated with something on the order of one out of every four American mosques. How would prosecution of such an entity appear to the broader American community? How would the rest of the Muslim American community respond to an indictment? If the Muslim Brotherhood network in America and its allies were able to raise a political maelstrom over the conviction of Sami Al Arian, a South Florida professor tied to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, how much louder would a hyper-partisan media and an aggressive, social media-fueled activist infrastructure shriek if, for example, the organizing force behind a quarter of American mosques were indicted?
It’s no wonder that capitalizing on the government’s “too big to fail” assessment has proven to be an effective strategy of Islamist leaders in the United States, as pressure groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood routinely conflate their own front organizations and political goals with the totality of American Muslims. Regrettably, an increasingly uncurious media accepts this falsehood—and membership records for Muslim Brotherhood groups make clear it is a falsehood.
A New Way Forward
The new Trump administration must be prepared to rebut the inevitable complaints from self-styled Islamist “civil rights” leaders and their enablers in the media. It’s important to remember that this would be the case whether or not the next president orders the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. The Trump campaign and national security team has withstood the overwrought allegations that his proposals target all Muslims.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization should give law enforcement and intelligence officials the tools they need to begin a serious, long-term investigation of the Islamist group’s network in this country. The new administration must undertake a genuine effort to map this clandestine system, and key organizational leaders should be made the target of legitimate investigation, and prosecuted as legally appropriate.
It will be difficult to immediately reverse a culture within the U.S. government that has favored engaging the Muslim Brotherhood over investigating it. Since at least the Clinton administration, the White House Rolodex has included officials from domestic Islamist groups whose names routinely appeared in the court documents of terror finance cases. Even more, the Obama administration has quietly removed many organizations and individuals designated as global terrorists from the list, undoing much of the work by counterterrorism agents who were responsible for our post-9/11 response.
Because of the Brotherhood’s political influence, which frustrated Bush-era prosecutions and halted them altogether under Obama, rolling back the Islamist group will require a joint counterterrorism/counterintelligence initiative. U.S. policy should treat all contacts with known and suspected Muslim Brotherhood members the way government personnel examine and report contacts with potential foreign intelligence services. Contact or association with the Brotherhood should be immediately disqualifying during ordinary background investigations for security clearances.
Additionally, a designation should provide added leverage for counterterrorism officials. Instead of approaching Brotherhood members and organizations as respected community leaders for outreach purposes either at home or abroad, the primary goal should be to acquire the intelligence needed to disrupt terror finance or prevent indoctrination. If necessary, officials can use the possibility of prosecution under the Muslim Brotherhood designation to secure cooperation, which would be similar to the way informants are treated when approaching other conspirators, such as crime organizations.
Unlike the prosecution of the Mafia however, a Trump administration will need to accompany counterterrorism efforts with a strong public relations campaign. Informed, articulate spokesmen will need to explain how relevant prosecutions were conducted, why they were necessary, and—perhaps most importantly—how they targeted the Muslim Brotherhood for its criminal behavior, not its religious convictions. Officials will need to be prepared to push back with facts against accusations of inappropriate discrimination. This, in turn, may require a more open approach to terror prosecutions, making relevant documents available to journalists quicker, while doing so in a manner that protects sources and methods.
Additionally, such a campaign to target the Muslim Brotherhood will require gathering more and better intelligence on the group’s ideology than the Obama Administration permitted. Since the U.S. government’s threat-focused counterterror training has been aggressively purged during the past eight years, accurate subject matter instruction will be the first step before earnest policy reorientation begins. Due to the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow Islamic extremists, training for counterterrorism and counterintelligence officials will necessarily address sensitive issues of Islamic doctrine and legal theory. Political correctness mustn’t be allowed to deny access to training based on demonstrable facts.
It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better
As has always been the case since its founding—and is currently the case in Egypt today—the Muslim Brotherhood has responded to crackdowns by proclaiming that Islam itself is under attack. The group has galvanized its membership to conduct numerous violent assaults, usually under the identity of a “splinter” faction. We can expect that, should it be designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization, at least some element of the Brotherhood will respond by seeking to increase terrorist violence against the United States. This will be difficult for a U.S. law enforcement infrastructure already strained by the Islamic State, but is a storm that can and must be weathered. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood remains necessary. The potential for violence must be weighed against law enforcement’s ability to take swifter action and develop a deeper, more accurate view of Islamic extremism operating in the United States and around the globe.
President-elect Trump successfully campaigned on the repudiation of the national security views of the Obama administration. With the failure of the “democratic Islamist” project, the time has come to return to the alternative: (a) the promotion of Islamists accelerates, rather than stifles, Islamic terrorism; and (b) the Muslim Brotherhood remains at the center of Islamic ideological extremism throughout the world. Any policy not prepared to abandon America’s promotion of political Islam broadly, and the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, merely perpetuates old failures.