Untangling the ‘conundrum’ of US blacklisting of Muslim Brotherhood

“There are a number of charities across the country that have connections back to the Muslim Brotherhood that we could probably describe as radical in their ideology”. - Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Challenging the swords.  A 2013 file picture shows a man holding a plaque of the Muslim Brotherhood emblem that was removed from the party’s burned-out headquarters in the Moqattam district of Cairo.  (AFP)
Challenging the swords. A 2013 file picture shows a man holding a plaque of the Muslim Brotherhood emblem that was removed from the party’s burned-out headquarters in the Moqattam district of Cairo. (AFP)

With pundits and government officials calling the move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation” both illegal and a logistical nightmare, Jonathan Schanzer said the answer might be to investigate and designate the group faction by faction.

“It would be entirely legal,” said Schanzer, senior vice-president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Treasury Department. “It would be easier for the bureaucracy to digest.”

The question arose in April after US President Donald Trump said he was considering the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

In a statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary,  said April 30: “The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern and this designation is working its way through the internal process.”

The move followed a meeting Trump had on April 9 with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who became president after a military-backed uprising removed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammad Morsi from office in 2013. The group, whose leadership is in prison or in exile, opposes Sisi.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

“Certainly, there is an aura of politics that surrounds all of this,” Schanzer said, adding that Sisi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and the Emiratis aren’t fans of the Brotherhood and that a designation would place “Qatar in the crosshairs” because of its support of the Brotherhood.

He noted that the designation must be based on “clear and credible evidence” that the Muslim Brotherhood has engaged in violence; and while groups that splintered off from the Brotherhood, such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, meet those standards, the Brotherhood itself publicly disavowed violence in the 1970s and has evaded charges of violence.

“This is the conundrum,” Schanzer said. “This is what people are howling about when they talk about the so-called illegality of the designation.”

Because there needs to be “a top-down assessment,” he said, it might be easier to do it branch-by-branch or country-by-country.

The second consideration is that the designation would require monitoring “many, many parts,” Schanzer said, some of them in the United States and some parts of political systems the United States considers allies, such as Turkey, Jordan and Morocco. In those places, there’s little evidence of Brotherhood-sponsored violence, Schanzer said. The Muslim Brotherhood has branches in more than 90 countries.

“In some cases, it’s Islamism heavy and nationalism light and, in other cases, it’s nationalism heavy and nationalism light,” he said, adding there are many varieties.

In other cases, a terrorist designation could punish groups that have refused to participate in violent activities.

The United States has not designated an internal group on terrorism grounds since 2009, Schanzer said. That, he said, suggests that the FBI and CIA have lost the appetite for going after internal terrorist organisations.

“There are a number of charities across the country that have connections back to the Muslim Brotherhood that we could probably describe as radical in their ideology,” he said. “It is something that our law enforcement agencies have been loth to do.

“Ideology, however, is not enough for a designation.”

Externally, officials could look at whether the designation should come from the US State Department or the US Treasury Department, he said. Treasury could assess whether an organisation is supported by a terrorist group and the bar is “a little lower” than for the State Department designation.

There is also a question of whether the designation is warranted, Schanzer said.

“Is this a smart thing to do in the battle of ideas?” he said, arguing that the Brotherhood is often a “stepping stone” to violence jihadism and that many violent movements have been inspired by the teachings of the Brotherhood.

“In my view, doing an assessment is not a problem,” Schanzer said. “It’s a mandate.”

The CIA said the Muslim Brotherhood could not be designated a terrorist organisation but it did not, Schanzer said, assess the organisation on a “case-by-case” basis.

There are other options, he said, including designating individuals or calling the Brotherhood a “hate group,” a lighter designation that wouldn’t include as many repercussions.

“All of that’s on the table,” he said.

Schanzer shared the plan with administration and congressional officials. While, he said, people seem receptive to the idea, he’s seeing resistance.

“People understand the process that I’ve delineated,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they like it.”

On the “hard right,” people want to designate the entire network. “They’re opponents of the network and would rather that there not be legal restraints,” Schanzer said.

On the left, he said, some consider taking even small steps as “acquiescing to the Trump administration.”

“I believe this is the middle ground,” he said.

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