President Trump has — for the time being — put on the back burner an executive order designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, according to U.S. officials close to a heated debate inside the administration over the status of the global Islamist movement.
While the White House has declined to comment publicly, officials speaking on condition of anonymity say the administration backed down from a plan to designate the Brotherhood last month after an internal State Department memo advised against it because of the movement’s loose-knit structure and far-flung political ties across the Middle East.
The Brotherhood has prominent political factions engaged — at least perfunctorily — in democracy in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and several other Muslim-majority nations, and the State Department memo coincided with high-level pressure placed on the Trump administration from at least one of them.
Senior diplomats from Jordan — a close U.S. ally — are believed to have weighed in heavily against the idea of adding the Brotherhood to the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations list, said the official, because the movement’s political arm in Amman currently holds 16 Jordanian parliament seats.
But debate over the Brotherhood’s status remains biting in Washington, where hard-liners in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism say former President Barack Obama erred for years by failing to target the organization’s promotion of extremist ideology, and that President Trump is now badly fumbling a chance to rectify the situation.
A former terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury recently wrote, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
The Trump Administration is mulling an order designed to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. The best approach would be a piecemeal one: Some Brotherhood branches belong on that list, some don’t — and making the distinction will help President Trump more effectively fight the war on terror.
It’s no secret why the Muslim Brotherhood is in the crosshairs. Its hateful and anti-Western worldview has long served as an ideological gateway to jihadi terrorist groups. Famously, Osama bin Laden’s partner in founding al Qaeda was a Muslim Brother named Abdullah Azzam. And while al Qaeda has broken with the Muslim Brotherhood on a range of political issues, Brotherhood thinkers have undeniably shaped al Qaeda’s ideology over the years — and the ideology of other jihadist groups, too.
The Brotherhood has evolved quite a bit since its founding in Egypt in 1928. For one, the group now operates worldwide. Over time, the political and military pressure from host governments in the Middle East also forced the Brotherhood to dial back on its overt extremist positions. Under the threat of annihilation, these groups had little choice to but to lay down their weapons and embrace politics.
Once some Brotherhood branches are designated, it may become easier to target others. When certain branches or even leaders of the Brotherhood are caught providing financial, technical or material support to listed entities, they immediately become candidates for designation.
Meanwhile, there will be opportunities to take further action at home. According to an official Treasury report submitted in December, “The US has not designated a domestic US-based charity since . . . 2009.” In other words, it appears that the Obama administration placed an unknown number of terrorist financing cases on hold at the Department of Justice over the last eight years.
Trump should instruct the DOJ to reopen them. When these cases meet criteria, they should be prosecuted. And if they involve Muslim Brotherhood activists, that nexus should be made clear.
Finally, the Trump administration has one last crucial point of leverage to undermine the financing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey, two countries typically viewed as US allies, are the top financial and logistical supporters of the Brotherhood worldwide. They also serve as financiers and headquarters to the Brotherhood’s most violent branch: Hamas.
The administration should call upon Qatar and Turkey to end support for Hamas. They should also be warned about their support for Brotherhood branches that appear to be engaged in violent activity or even simply spreading extremist rhetoric.
The administration has a number of options at its disposal shy of a blanket terrorist designation. Because going after the “mother ship” may not ultimately hold up under legal scrutiny, an incremental approach may have a higher likelihood of success. That may also ultimately lead to a broader campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood that enjoys the backing of foreign partners and American skeptics alike.
Trump should start by removing subversive Muslims from federal positions, starting with DHS. As well as meeting with notorious Brotherhood-linked imams and spokesman. He’s off to a bad start.
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