Thursday, 30th March 2017

US, Gulf leaders divided over terrorist designation for Brotherhood

Reports from the United States, based on leaks from numerous government sources, suggest the Trump administration is wrestling with its ideological commitment to designate Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood or MB) as a terrorist organisation. Many officials are anxious to ensure that any ramifications are given real thought beforehand. However, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and National Security Council Principals Committee member Steve Bannon is among those in the administration determined to proceed with a full designation. Bannon regards the MB and its key ideologue Sayyid Qutb as the founding force behind modern Islamist terrorism. Regional leaders, including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, have been lobbying Trump over the matter.

Others in the region, and in the US administration, are less enthusiastic. New national security advisor Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond ‘HR’ McMasters – a considerably more thoughtful and substantial soldier than his abruptly terminated predecessor Michael Flynn – and officials in the State Department are wary of any designation that suggests Islam is responsible for Jihadist terrorism, rather than a sub-set of extremists.

Al-Ikhwan’s confidence and willingness to engage in dialogue to win adherents, particularly in the early stages of struggle in a particular territory, persuades some diplomats it has respect for the democratic process – unlike more militant Islamists. Some also believe that dialogue provides a valuable opportunity for the US to influence and persuade. This Washington tendency apparently tried – but failed – to have Trump drop his vow to tackle “radical Islamic terrorism” from his 28 February address to Congress.

Western understanding of the Ikhwan is replete with ambiguities, as reflected in the British government’s much-anticipated review, which was only published in December 2015 after a long delay and in a very truncated version (GSN 1,007/14). The UK report – which last year was highly criticised by a parliamentary committee (GSN 1,026/7) – described the MB as organised on a clandestine cellular basis using secret membership, while operating both openly but also covertly through front organisations. It was keen to win arguments intellectually but neither was it averse to subterfuge and support of violence to achieve its ultimate goal. It recommended viewing the MB with suspicion, not openly detailing all the government action this might entail, but drew back from a global designation of the Ikhwan as a terrorist organisation.

The US will need to determine whether to go for a blanket designation covering both identifiable and associated individuals and organisations, or a more tightly-defined designation targeting a ‘core’ MB. With the US and GCC leaders in a post-Obama honeymoon (for all the angst surrounding Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’), Washington may also consider how its designation would impact on Gulf states – which would depend on whether a narrow or blanket definition is chosen.

Unsurprisingly, the UAE leadership is lobbying for a widely-defined designation. Abu Dhabi has recently updated its own list of proscribed organisations, and will see a US designation as useful in curbing support from neighbouring countries for MB-influenced groups. The UAE has long been concerned about the proselytising activities of Qatar-based Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Turkey-based Hassan Al-Diqqi, an Emirati national linked to the MB-associated Ummah Conference. It has brought extradition proceedings against a number of Kuwaiti members of parliament it accuses of supporting the banned Emirati MB front organisation Al-Islah.

Oman enjoys a degree of protection because of the tolerance inherent in its Ibadi majority’s beliefs, but has nevertheless had its problems, including a thwarted MB-inspired coup in the mid-1990s. It would find a more widely defined designation useful.

But in Kuwait and Bahrain well-established elected assemblies have long contained MB-ticketed members at national and community level. The Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait and Al-Minbar Islamic Society in Bahrain have been significant players in both countries, where political efforts have been complemented by charitable and social activities, in keeping with the MB’s comprehensive approach to creating an Islamic society. Further, MB influence has been strong in some ministries, while Bahraini and Kuwaiti governments have at times drawn support from Ikhwan-associated parties in confrontations with other political opponents.

Despite recent government efforts to reverse MB influence, and attempts by the local organisations to separate themselves from the Nizam (the MB’s international organisation), the Ikhwan remains well-embedded and enjoys considerable sympathy in Kuwait and Bahrain. There is a fear that too wide a definition of the Brotherhood in any terrorism designation could create significant short-term political instability.

Consequences of a designation are more difficult to gauge in Saudi Arabia, whose government’s opposition to the MB is primarily a matter of self-preservation for the House of Saud – a concern energised by the Egyptian experience since old ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. A US designation of the MB would be welcomed by the Riyadh government, but there might be a sting in the tale from the widespread sympathy for the Brotherhood among many Saudis.

Of all the GCC states, Qatar, with its long history of cultivating MB-associated leaders presents the greatest conundrum. Attempts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get Qatar to curb Doha-based MB ideologues’ activities have effectively failed, even if they have toned down (GSN 1,016/14). The MB is well embedded in Qatar, enjoying support from prominent families, but without domestic political goals or organisation (unlike Bahrain and Kuwait) and focused on social issues.

Political aspirations are exported instead, reflected in Qatari support for Islamist groups in Syria and Libya. The Qataris will likely be confident that no designation will overly impact them, especially while they host the US base at Al-Udied and Western intelligence services enjoy the resources and access freely provided by their Qatari opposite numbers. Here, the US administration’s inclination ‘to do a deal’ may well trump their ideological dislike of Qatar’s support for Islamism.

Although the Trump administration has moved at break-neck speed to implement its campaign manifesto, designation of the Brotherhood is an issue whose complexity will probably defy the sledgehammer approach. Officials are well aware that the policy will have to cover other countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Turkey in particular – where MB-related parties play an important role, and where the ramifications of a clumsy move could be even greater than in the Gulf.

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