In recently released disaster relief fundraising ads by Islamic Relief Fund USA, blue clad volunteers are shown cleaning up hurricane wreckage, packaging Thanksgiving turkeys for the needy, and distributing bottled water in Flint, Michigan. They are scenes of Americans helping Americans. Yet the Trump administration may soon associate this charity with America’s enemy for the past 18 years, terrorism, due to its alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood.
After receiving pressure from Egyptian President el-Sisi, the Trump administration announced that it is again considering whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational Sunni Islamist organization, with widespread ties throughout the MENA region, whose objective is to integrate Islam with government and society. Declaring the Muslim Brotherhood an FTO would be incorrect and counterproductive due to the Brotherhood’s diffuse and divided nature.
In order to designate a FTO, the State Department must demonstrate that the target group engages in terrorist activity that threatens the security of Americans or the defense, foreign relations or economic interests of the United States. This is difficult to prove for the Muslim Brotherhood. While some off-shoot groups and Brotherhood members engage in or support terrorist activity, the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole publicly disavows violent jihad. Its members are public servants, businessmen, politicians and NGO leaders. Being labeled as an FTO brings serious consequences such as ostracization, asset freezing, and potential criminal prosecution to the designated group. In this case, FTO designation would be unwarranted and cause undue hardship on legitimate enterprises.
The autocratic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE see the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology as a threat to the integrity of their nation-states and their rule. They argue that the Brotherhood threatens the region’s stability and implore their allies to label them terrorists. However, applying this designation to the Brotherhood will actually harm stability. It could drive moderate Islamists out of the existing political system and into arms of violent jihadist groups. Dr. Marc Lynch, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science, argues that the Muslim Brotherhood competes with violent terrorist groups for politically oriented Islamist recruits and provides them a moderate and nonviolent alternative to effect their views. Without such an outlet, designation of the Brotherhood as an FTO may serve to strengthen more extreme Islamists like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
While complying with el-Sisi’s wishes would support an ally, this designation would threaten relationships with other nations in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood is connected to political groups in several nations in the MENA region which partner with US security interests such as Bahrain, Jordan, and Qatar. An FTO designation of the Brotherhood may threaten the use of forward bases within these nations and future collaboration with their respective militaries.
The partnership between the US and Turkey is particularly concerning. The two nations are at odds over political prisoners, US support of the Kurds in Northern Syria, and Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian military equipment. The US has imposed sanctions on Turkey and has threatened severe economic consequences should Turkey follow through with its deal with Russia. Turkish President Erdogan’s AKP party shares ideological roots with the Muslim Brotherhood and advances an Islamist agenda. An FTO designation on the Muslim Brotherhood could directly impact individuals in the Turkish government and further damage relations with America. Such a breakdown in diplomatic relations would affect the integrity of NATO and represent a security threat far worse than that posed by the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
While Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia promote targeting the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, the White House should take care to discriminate between which branches of the Brotherhood truly engage in terrorist activity. Lest, in an effort to placate Arab autocratic leaders, the Trump administration risks persecuting innocent entities, polarizing moderate Islamists, and jeopardizing more fragile foreign relationships.
The ideas and opinions presented in this paper are those of the author and do not represent an official statement by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army, or other government entity.