Elephants in the Room

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization Is a Bad Idea

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood, a non-state, multinational, and multifaceted organization, would be imprudent and hasty.


As President Donald Trump ramps up a war on what he calls “radical Islamic terrorism,” now is a good time to reflect on which organizations should actually be tagged as terrorist. Consider Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

As we have written elsewhere, there are strong arguments for designating the IRGC, which is a state-sponsored, national military command. But designating the MB, a non-state, multinational, and multifaceted organization would be imprudent: risks of designating the MB as a terrorist organization outweigh the benefits.

On February 8, CNN reported the Trump administration was seriously considering designating the IRGC and the MB as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). But a day earlier, Reuters reported the White House had placed on hold any executive order designating the MB, while the administration determined whether to designate the IRGC.

Two versions of the same bill designating the MB have been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives: S. 68 – Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2017, introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Jan. 9, 2017; and H.R. 377, introduced on the same date by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).

There are some potential benefits to such a designation. For one, it would severely restrict the ability of MB persons to operate openly. Among other restrictions, designation makes it unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States knowingly to provide “material support or resources,” including training, teaching, or expert advice. Also, any non-U.S. citizen members of an FTO are inadmissible and any funds held by a U.S. financial institution would be frozen.

These restrictions would have a serious impact on MB efforts to build new mosques, community centers, or other “outposts” for the spread of their ideology. Shutting down the spread of MB-affiliated mosques and community centers would stymy efforts to create a support network for any members prepared to engage in violent acts against U.S. persons or vital interests. Because this prohibition extends to any funds moving through U.S. banks regardless of origin, this salutary constriction of MB building efforts would take place worldwide.

The restriction of material support for MB would also reduce the ability of violent elements of MB to acquire weapons and bomb-making materials. U.S. designation of Hamas, an MB affiliate in Gaza, has allowed for severe restrictions on Hamas’s ability to wage war against Israel. One shudders to think how much worse the attacks from Gaza against Israel would be if Hamas had even more ability to import weapons, construct tunnels, and develop bombs to harm Israel. (MB terrorist designations by Muslim-majority countries include: Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Syria; notable exceptions are Qatar and Turkey.)

That said, there are significant risks to designating the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO. First, while MB-affiliated Hamas is a state-sponsored organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel by any means, the MB more generally is a political movement. As Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch notes, “The Muslim Brotherhood is a large and complex political organization operating in many countries.” By calling the whole group a terrorist organization, the Trump administration would be making a wide policy determination that, experts warn, could harm participation of Muslim groups in democratic processes. Since only some groups connected to the MB are engaged in violent activities, the large number of peaceful groups pursuing legitimate activities raises the question of whether designation would meet statutory criteria.

Second, given the serious impact of designation on U.S. financial institutions in enforcing its provisions, especially overseas, a broad consensus across the political spectrum in Washington is necessary for designation to be sustained. Designation comes up for review every two years. There is already pushback in Congress: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has said the Muslim Brotherhood “is a terrorist type organization” but called on the United States to consult with allies to understand the possible fallout from designating the group. “Before we do official action, it’s important that we weigh the consequences of what we do,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Third, the Washington think-tank community is split — with most opposed to designation. Specialists on U.S. foreign affairs generally adhere to the position that the MB is more a legitimate political and social organization than a terrorist organization, and its multinational character reflects a diversity of sub-groups, many of which are not terrorist organizations.

Fourth, critics of designation make good points, particularly their concerns about blowback. Perhaps the most important statement of risks of designation comes from Eric Trager of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a preeminent think tank on Middle East issues. Trager states, “If the Trump Administration tries and fails to designate the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, it could backfire: Brotherhood organizations would likely hail this as a victory and use a failed designation as evidence to claim — falsely — that they are nonviolent.”

Because risks of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization outweigh the benefits, there is no need to rush the process. Possible executive orders and congressional bills need careful consideration of benefits and risks.

It is important for the president and Congress to move along similar lines to enhance the impact of executive orders. Interagency coordination and congressional hearings allow for such augmentation of presidential authority. They also alert the judiciary and fourth estate of legality and legitimacy of unified governmental action.

Finally, the Trump administration should review options to craft a targeted form of designation. Going after parts that are violent have a higher likelihood of success against the MB and enjoy backing of foreign partners and American skeptics alike than going after the “mothership,” per Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

There’s a better path forward that painting with a broad brush, too hastily.

Photo credit: DANIEL BEREHULAK/Getty Images