Planned Attacks by Muslim Brotherhood in Africa Strengthen Case for Terrorist Designation

A recent paper by Sami Moubayed exposes an underreported planned attack in Sudan, not by a Muslim  Brotherhood-terrorist cell, but by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The attacks would have taken places in February in Sudan’s Khartoum and in Cairo. Members of the cell included individuals of assorted backgrounds, such as Egyptians, and entered Sudan using fake Syrian passports, which was allegedly supplied to them by the Turkish government.  Worth noting that there are two separate issues worth exploring: first is the apparent shift in strategy by the Muslim Brotherhood central organizations, which had in the past distanced itself from direct involvement in violent activity.

Up until recently, the Muslim Brotherhood touted itself as a political movement, which nevertheless, funded other organizations with a record of terrorist activity, such as Hamas, Hassm, Liwa al-Thawra, which have all been designated as terrorist organizations in the United States, Egypt, and other countries. Indeed, Muslim Brotherhood activists in Egypt touted being peaceful, and presented themselves as a more “reasonable” alternative to violent jihadists – which worked in recruiting western intelligence agencies and governments, including the Obama administration, to backing them, at least in the short term. Many members of violent jihadist groups were also members of Muslim Brotherhood or shared the loose ideology and core approaches of the movement. According to some interpretations, Muslim Brotherhood always had an underground terrorist branch, which operated as a network of loosely affiliated cells and euphemistically named organizations, as a way to avoid direct accountability.

THis secret apparatus is traced back to the founding of the organization by Hassan Al-Banna, who, just as like his ideological descendants, portrayed himself as a political thinker and activist, participated in elections, ran for office, and otherwise claimed to support democracy. Indeed, Al-Banna touted a militant path from the very beginning, touting religious terminology of “jihad” and openly defining jihad to include violent activity just as much as political, legal, economic, or ideological struggle. “‘Jihad means the fighting of the unbelievers and involves all possible efforts that are necessary to dismantle the power of the enemies of Islam, including beating them, plundering their wealth, destroying their places of worship, and smashing their idols.” – he wrote in his book, “The Way of Jihad”, going as far as to defend attacks on religious institutions, something that organizations like Hamas and Hassm became known for in more recent years. Jihadists inspired by Islamist ideology, for instance, murdered 305 people in a Sufi mosque in Egypt in 2017.

Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological commitment to violence and the cross-pollination between its political activists pushed many scholars and governments to look towards designating them as a terrorist organization, particularly after Mohammed Morsi’s brief reign as president of Egypt, following the Arab Spring protests in the MENA region, heavily supported by Islamists. His tenure was characterized by mass attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt, as well as resurgence of jihadist harassment of Copts, human rights activists, and others. Morsi’s failure to reign in the violence, was thought to be a feature of his governance, rather than a bug, as he appeared to be either completely ineffectual and acted as a figurehead for the Muslim Brotherhood stalwarts, or deliberately turned a blind eye on these attacks, which made him part of the problem.

Saudi Arabia (KSA) designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2013; Egypt, UAE, and other countries all joined with KSA to advocate for similar designations in the West. Senator Ted Cruz (TX – R) pushed a bill that would support such a designation in 2017; President Trump, in 2019, announced his willingness to look into that issue and relegated it to the State Department for examination. However, soon after the initial burst of the enthusiasm, arguments against this measure came to the fore, both from the Muslim Brotherhood supporters in various US agencies, as well as left-leaning Muslim Brotherhood supporting think tanks and other non-profits – and from the hard line critics of the Muslim Brotherhood concerned about the feasibility of implementing this measure.

But the Muslim  Brotherhood critics and supporters agreed on some items; for instance, the differences in the legal definitions of “terrorism” in the United States and Middle Eastern countries are vast, as are the standards of evidence for such designations. Arguably, if there is no solid connection between Muslim Brotherhood affiliated jihadists and the political movement, or if there is only evidence of conspiracies and funding, that may be enough to blacklist the organization for funding of US-based NGOs and for lesser known legal charges, but would not hold up in court in terms of Muslim Brotherhood’s active role in terrorist attacks, according to the legal definition.

That means, the US government would spend years in litigation over dubious terminology, spend millions of taxpayers money, and likely lose to well-funded Brotherhood organizations in the US, while discrediting this effort through extensive publicity campaigns in the media.  On top of that, various government agencies supportive of the movement would fight any such effort tooth and nail, miring the designation in endless bureaucracy, while effective US foreign policy would be stymied by the confusion of dealing with several US allied countries, which have elected Muslim Brotherhood affiliated parties to Parliaments (Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia are examples).

For that reason, critics of Muslim Brotherhood advised the US government against pushing for designation, and instead advocated investigating the funding of various unindicted coconspirators in the US, involved in money laundering towards known terrorist organization. They also called for open Congressional and Department of Justice investigation of Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with its various affiliates around the world, demanding a full accounting for the movement’s violent ideology, other illegal or dangerous actions, methods, goals, and affiliations. The interest in the issue appeared to subside as other US government priorities, such as the pressure on Iran, took their place. Senator Cruz eventually put forward a different bill requiring less controversial measures, such as oversight and scrutiny of the Muslim Brotherhood and its network. Recent events, however, point in the direction that the proponents of terrorist designation were likely correct all along.

The turning point was the activity of the Islamists in Sudan following the fall of Omar Al-Bashir. The new transitional government quickly earned backing and generous funding by KSA, UAE, and Egypt. They moved to shut down Al Jazeera, considered to be a mouthpiece for Qatar’s government, and the media branch of Doha’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy, and took measures to fire Islamist clerics and government officials. According to Florid-based Egyptian journalist and analyst Mohamed Maher, this policy had its repercussions. On March 9,  2020, Sudan’s Prime Minister, Hamdok, who was appointed to his position in the transitional government in August 2019, a few months after the overthrow of Al-Bashir, survived another attempt on his life by unknown forces.

Al Bashir’s regime, explains Maher, was “one of the most important allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore it is likely that the group was involved in the attack on the Sudanese Prime Minister in one way or another”. Allegedly, a new group known as the “Sudanese Islamic Youth Movement – Taliban” took credit for the attack, but there is reason to believe whatever that entity was had its roots in the larger political movement.  According to Maher, this assassination attempt was not the first time the Islamists were thought to have clashed with the transitional government.

In another underreported incident, in January 2020, a number of Sudanese Islamist officers with ties to the Al-Bashir regime and his Islamist allies, attempted a coup against the transitional government, Maher revealed, through a failed revolt “aimed at releasing Al-Bashir, and Brotherhood leaders from jail”, where they await transfer to international courts.  Lieutenant General  Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the President of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, announced the successful containment of the revolt, which Maher says, erupted in two bases in Khartoum, and which belonged to the General Intelligence Agency. Infiltration of the intelligence by Islamists is not contained to Sudan.

Recent arrests of the former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Naif, and King Salman’s brother, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, point in the direction of a planned coup inside the Kingdom against Mohammed bin Naif’s successor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  (These arrests have been confirmed to the author by at least four independent sources). According to the reports, supporters of Mohammed bin Naif had plotted a return of the latter to power by undermining Mohammed bin Salman through assorted campaigns and operations and by agitating relevant government bodies, which cannot legally remove a crown prince, but may work to diminish his influence, to create an appearance of instability inside the country, and to bring about such bad publicity that he would be considered a liability and forced to step down.

Mohammed bin Nain was known to be surrounded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters known as the “falcons of Naif” inside the Interior Ministry, and other agencies, and may have contributed to several intelligence failures inside the country since Mohammed bin Salman took his position. Mohammed bin Naif’s influence did not fully disappear once the new crown prince ascended to power. One of his strongest supporters, a former intelligence official Saad Al-Jabri, “once a trusted top adviser“, known for his Islamist links, fled the country from fraud and corruption charges in light of these arrests. Though he was reportedly sacked in 2017, his influence inside Saudi intelligence remained. With the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood inside the Kingdom, it appears that the network of the umbrella organization’s affiliates has not only been previously evicted and relegated itself to Ankara and Doha, but on the contrary, remained in the shadows within the countries where Muslim Brotherhood aimed to returned to power, and plotted active measures and violent operations.

The resurgence of violent groups now openly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood may point to the desperation of the organization to return to status quo of political power in the Arab world, where Islamism, and particularly Muslim Brotherhood’s brand, is allegedly dying out, and where Al Jazeera is ceding influence among traditional Muslims. The strategy remains the same: destabilize the Arab and Muslim world through instigation, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, while undermining the West’s confidence in its Arab/Muslim partners through a combination of poor options, aggressively lobbying, media disinformation, and assorted influence campaigns via business investments and human rights NGOs.

Perhaps it is indeed time to reexamine and reassess the issue of designating Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in the US and other Western countries. Its actions appear to fit the bill.

At the same time, the second issue arising from this recent scenario is the partnership between state actors and non-state organizations and movements. Turkey’s role in first, providing the conspirators with fake passport for a clearly illicit purpose, and second by knowingly facilitating an attempted terrorist attack deserves open scrutiny and investigation. If Ankara is trying to play the NATO card in Syria, while funding violence against other US allies and increasingly moderate governments, US relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey may and should deteriorate further. The attempted attack in Cairo directly endangers Egypt and its leadership, and may add additional destabilization to a region where Islamist interventionism in Libya has already created a dangerous nexus of violence, illicit funding, and smuggling.

This nexus, in turn, threatens to spill over to the rest of North Africa, and beyond through alliances with criminal and separatist organizations in the region. Turkey’s hosting of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have escaped from Egypt has been an open secret, which the White House and Congress, until this point, refused to touch with a ten-foot pole. However, should it be proved that Erdogan or his intelligence agencies, were involved in attempted terrorist attacks in Africa, Turkey’s ideological – and physical – ” line of defense”, already in question due to its aggressive and unwanted meddling in Syria, Libya, Northern Iraq, and the Eastern Mediterranean, may finally be  revealed for what it actually is: a brute, brazen attempt to undermine US interests globally, and to undercut her allies – actions of an enemy, not a friend or an ally.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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