The bill filed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) last Tuesday may impose a decisive shift in Obama’s oscillating relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2015,” as the bill is called, sounds like a more determined re-edition of last year’s failed efforts to force Obama to designate the Islamist organization as a terrorist entity.
The line of argument at the base of Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s bill rests on a first, sound point, namely that the U.S. terrorist designation is in line with the U.S.’s long history of designations against individuals and groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, starting with Hamas in 1995. The U.S. past designations align with the long series of analogous efforts substantiated in the terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood movement by Syria, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain over the last decade.
The section of the bill that attempts a conceptual justification of the terrorist designation based on the nature of the organization includes a partial and somewhat uncritical selection of excerpts spanning the writings of Hasan Al-Banna, who founded the movement in Egypt in 1928, as well as references to congressional testimonies and academic contributions in support of the bill’s argument. Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s may not be the most comprehensive account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s history and ideology, yet it sheds light on a crucial aspect which has not resonated enough in the U.S. public discourse: that is, the Muslim Brotherhood has and still does engage in terrorism financing inside the country, thereby posing a direct threat to the country’s efforts to halt terror financing both at the domestic and global level.
The history of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activism for illicit purposes in the United States became common knowledge with the case of Soliman Biheiri, the founder of the now-defunct New Jersey investment firm known as Beit Mal Incorporated or BMI, Inc. that underwent federal investigation for its ties to designated terrorist entities. Biheiri was convicted on Federal immigration charges in 2003, but he was described by federal prosecutors in 2003 as “the United States banker for the Muslim Brotherhood” and presented as “the Muslim Brotherhood’s financial toehold in the United States.” BMI invested in business and real estate, providing a range of financial services to the Muslim community as well as to the extremist organizations related to the Muslim Brotherhood based in the U.S. in the 1990s. In fact, Biheiri is known to have cooperated with Mousa Abu Marzook, Hamas’s deputy political leader and investor in BMI, when he moved to the United States in the early 1990s. For Marzook he oversaw and funded part of the project for the construction of the residential complex in Oxon Hill, eventually labeled “Hamas Heights” by U.S. law enforcement officials for it was conceived to raise money for Hamas.
As a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, Marzook was not the only controversial figure among BMI shareholders, which included Al-Qaeda financier Yassin al-Qadi (designated as a SDGT but unsurprisingly delisted in 2014), Osama bin Laden’s nephew Abdullah bin Laden, and the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood leader Tarek Swaidan.
In February 2011 FBI Director Robert Mueller’s testimony on the Muslim Brotherhood’s activity and network in the U.S. before the Permanent Select Committee of Intelligence of the House of Representatives confirmed that Biheiri’s case was not isolated. Mueller claimed that “elements of the Muslim Brotherhood both here [in the U.S.] and overseas have supported terrorism.”
In a most recent report published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism, Steven Emerson argued that the legacy of that original core of Muslim Brotherhood association in the U.S. has been picked up by at least five members of the advocacy organization American Muslims for Palestine (AMP). Those AMP members were involved in activities of “fundraising, propaganda, and lobbying” for the so-called “Palestine Committee,” a defunct network created by the Muslim Brotherhood “to advance Hamas’ agenda politically and financially in the United States.”
Marzook created several entities to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission on American soil. The Holy Land Foundation, which Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s bill rightly presents as the subject of the “largest terrorism financing trial in the United States history,” is among those. To mention another prominent political actor implicated in the Muslim Brotherhood’s network in the U.S., the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a founding member of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, a coalition of national Islamist groups of which AMP is a member as well. According to Emerson, CAIR’s founding members were involved in the Palestine Committee based on records admitted into evidence during the trial US v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, et al.
The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the North America Islamic Trust (NAIT) also figured in July 2008 legal proceedings mentioned by the bill among the U.S.-based Islamic organizations actively involved in the Muslim Brotherhood network. Allegedly, both NAIT and ISNA were intimately connected with the Holy Land Foundation and were responsible for providing financial support to Hamas.
If approved, the bill would not automatically imply the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Rather, it would express a “sense of Congress” that the group meets the criteria for such a designation. By effect of the bill, however, the U.S. Secretary of State will have 60 days to explain whether it agrees with the suggested designation and therefore enforce it or it disagrees with it, in which case it would be compelled to justify its position by detailing which criteria the organization does not meet for the designation.
The sanctioning of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a terrorist organization may imply an unprecedented twist in Obama’s foreign policy which does not seem realistic any time soon. Nonetheless, its indisputable merit lies in the fact that it refocused public attention on some fringes of the Muslim Brotherhood which are still actively pursuing illicit purposes in the U.S. It is time for the U.S. to finally dismiss its ambiguous approach towards individuals, groups and states which sponsor terrorism at a global level and to enact decisive measures against that highly interlinked movement of funds that enables terrorism on a global scale.