Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jan. 31, 2017, 10:15am

The time may be ripe for the U.S. State Department to take a serious look into the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence and activities in the United States, media reports last week have anticipated. As the Trump administration gears up to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism” and lays out severely restrictive immigration regulations, its appointees have signaled a newly found receptivity to the longstanding call for the terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

On January 11, 2017, for the fifth year in a row, lawmakers have attempted to file legislation to this effect. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) presented a bill for the criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood – a re-edition of a recent failed attempt – reportedly co-sponsored by three lawmakers in the Senate and 20 in the House of Representatives, including the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul. Among Trump’s appointees, CIA Director Rep. Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions, and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn appear to be strongly in favor of adding the Muslim Brotherhood to U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of the Treasury’s lists of foreign terrorist organizations. Even more significantly, however, yet to be confirmed Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a top security threat for the country along with al-Qaeda and ISIS in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The tremendous domestic and international political implications of the initiative fueled a fierce debate between critics and supporters of Trump’s rumored intention to request that the Department of State proceed with a preliminary study towards the Brotherhood’s blacklisting. While the move is feared to be subject to political manipulation at home, with virtually uncontrollable consequences for Muslim American organizations and the American Muslim community writ large, the terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood could also encourage countries that criminalize the Brotherhood to escalate prosecution. Similarly, such an abrupt shift from Obama’s politics of indulgence towards the group and its sponsors is expected to create new challenges for traditional U.S. allies like Qatar, the Brotherhood’s state-patron, and new opportunities for cooperation with states that criminalize the Brotherhood such as Egypt.

The highly complex spectrum of repercussions which the Trump administration could face should not discourage a thorough analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s network in the U.S., which historically was either dismissed or advanced based strictly on considerations of political convenience. Opponents are claiming that the terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood rests entirely on ideological grounds given the alleged absence of stringent evidence of the Brothers’ involvement in terrorist activity. By the same token, the vast majority of the supporters’ argument revolves around ideological reasons.

While radical beliefs alone are not enough to determine the terrorist nature of an organization, they cannot be overlooked. The agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood – founded by Hasan al-Banna as a political and social resistance movement in 1928 Egypt – has naturally evolved in relation to the context it thrived in yet has retained its long-standing goals of re-establishing the caliphate and implementing Sharia law. Over the past decades its tenets were disseminated by high-profile representatives such as the Doha-based radical preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi, who has often encouraged terrorism in the name of the Palestinian cause and is knowingly involved in organizations and financial institutions with proven ties to extremism and terrorism. The movement generated offshoots that often renounced the Brotherhood’s traditionally incremental tactics towards political takeover and espoused radical approaches. Hamas and al-Qaeda are among the most prominent examples of movements evolved from the Brotherhood’s ideological matrix. Similarly, a younger branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appears to be morphing into a revolutionary wing open to embracing violent means.

Highly politicized and far from being comprehensive, Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s bill filed in November 2015 (the so-called “Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2015”) barely scratched the surface of the problem. While it convincingly framed the terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a measure in line with a long tradition of U.S. terrorist designations targeting Brotherhood’s affiliates, starting with Hamas in 1995, the bill also offered some evidence – although partial and selective – of enduring cause for concern. As discussed in a previous piece, a long track record of Muslim Brothers’ activism for illicit purposes in the U.S. and recent developments on the matter tend to challenge and even invalidate the argument of those who refuse to give the criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood more serious consideration.

Soliman Biheiri, “the United States banker for the Muslim Brotherhood”, as U.S. federal prosecutors in charge of a two-year investigation into a U.S.-based network of businesses and charities supporting terrorism nicknamed him in 2003, is allegedly the symbol of the Brotherhood’s criminal endeavors in the United States. As the founder of a now defunct New Jersey investment firm, Beit Mal Incorporated, Biheiri counted prominent terrorist designated partners among his U.S.-based business ventures, including Hamas Politburo’s current deputy chairman and Specially Designated Global Terrorist Mousa Abu Marzook. Legal proceedings and congressional testimonies – especially former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s account before the House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 2011 – shed light on the Muslim Brotherhood’s network on American soil over the past two decades. Meanwhile, political developments periodically drag a plethora of charitable organizations that purportedly continue to finance and advance Hamas agenda in the U.S. and were repeatedly implicated in the U.S. MB network back in the eye of the storm. And while many posit that the smoking gun is yet to be found, it cannot be excluded that U.S.-based charities currently maintain ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even if Cruz and Diaz-Balart’s updated bill fails to pass, there is reason to expect that the State Department under Tillerson’s leadership will not give up the prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. President Trump may leverage the initiative – likely to be framed as part of his broader plan to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” in the country –to consolidate a strategic shift in foreign policy and redesign longstanding alliances. Yet besides its potential political consequences, a fresh, more thorough look at the Muslim Brotherhood may present the new administration with a valuable lead for counterterrorism financing which was deliberately neglected for a long time and should not be dismissed on purely ideological grounds.

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