Modern terrorist organizations have managed to flourish despite their enemies’ attempts to squash them and have often done so by hiding in plain sight behind a nominal disguise. The most successful groups have achieved a kind of parity with the countries they attack by masquerading as complicated and diverse establishments for which terror is but one facet of their true—and variegated—nature. Nearly all terrorist organizations operating today have learned to conduct effective subterfuge by pretending to diversify.
On the rhetorical level, the illusion is advanced when a terror organization claims for itself an ancillary “wing,” “arm,” or “branch.” Most often it is either a “charitable wing” that operates orphanages and hospitals and distributes aid to the poor, or a “political wing” devoted to achieving the group’s aims through negotiation. In reality though, the group and its newly-sprouted wings are never separate but rather integral, interdependent parts of a whole. The pose allows them to prosper by legitimizing their continued existence as aid providers or embryonic governments rather than terrorist groups.
Even if a group does not itself refer to the new organization as its wing, eager journalists, academics and politicians surely will. The illusion of segmentation is among the most effective tools in the terrorists’ propaganda kit as they cleverly play on the compassionate nature of their targets and exploit the myth that all charities are inherently good, that philanthropy is intrinsically a praiseworthy undertaking, and that freedom to practice one’s religion is a universal right even when that practice denies basic human rights to others.
Western nations are keen on rewarding those who participate in a democratic process and engage in negotiations because this is seen as the rational, civilized way to bridge differences. Mere participation in the political process becomes a desirable outcome in and of itself. Western nations also give generously to charitable causes and facilitate the work of others who do likewise.
Terrorists understand this, and so like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing they disguise their violent nature with the cloak of legitimacy through their nonviolent wings. Only by exposing the “wing” charade can states begin to adopt policies that effectively counter this ubiquitous tactic.
The Confidence Game
In the late nineteenth century, many radical organizations reveled in their infamy and wore the label terrorist proudly. But after World War II, most sought to distance themselves from the newly-stigmatized term, calling themselves instead revolutionaries, freedom fighters, or resisters to imperialism.
At the same time, however, another trend emerged in which terrorists sought to replace the notoriety of their predecessors with an appearance of legitimacy. This was a means of survival rather than an ideological shift. By transforming its image as a violent group into that of a provider of charitable services or a legitimate political player, a terrorist group gains the time and space necessary to sustain a campaign of violence.
Terrorist organizations that use this subterfuge are merely following a template perfected by other criminal organizations. For traditional criminal syndicates trading in stolen or illegal products and services, this has historically involved the creation of “dummy” or “shell” companies to hide their illicit work and profits. Likewise, criminal gangs and drug dealers have long known that distributing goods to the poor (turkeys at Thanksgiving or toys at Christmas) can buy them a degree of support and silence. The most successful terrorist organizations achieve a kind of respectability either by launching quasi-political branches or by operating charities, thus purchasing the toleration and even loyalty of those in their areas of operation.
A target state that agrees to negotiate with the political wing of a terrorist organization does so largely because of a credible threat of violence. Once a state falls for the phony compartmentalization, acknowledging or negotiating with a terrorist group’s wing, the bait has been taken. The con then evolves as the political wing offers to dissuade the military wing from undertaking more violence. Similarly, a target state will often give money to the charitable wing of a terrorist group in the hope that this action will sway hearts and minds within the population from which future terrorists are likely to emerge. The opposite, though, is true. A terrorist group with a charitable wing that operates a hospital, school, or orphanage has cleared a path to hiding both money and suspects; it can handily treat wounded terrorists and inculcate new ones. Further, any outside funds that go to humanitarian initiatives run by the terror group free up money for arms or violent undertakings. Any state that criminalizes a terrorist organization’s militant wing but allows its charitable wing to continue unfettered or negotiates with its political wing merely keeps the conflict alive by perpetuating the scam.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s “Charitable Wing”
While Sinn Féin and the IRA were founded separately and only later formed their symbiotic relationship, Hassan al-Banna originally founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as an umbrella organization with units devoted to politics (Islamism and the restoration of the caliphate) and to charity (mostly focused on poor Egyptian boys). Only later, in 1940, did a militant wing appear. Drawing recruits from his version of the Boy Scouts, Banna used graduates of the Brotherhood’s “Rover Scouts” to make up the core of an elite vanguard known as the Apparatus or the Special or Secret Apparatus (al-Jihaz or al-Tanzim al-Khass, al-Jihaz as-Sirri) willing to kill for the cause. Still later, in 1944, Banna launched a medical wing that operated clinics and pharmacies, and in 1945, founded the Muslim Sisters, which ran a girls’ school.
As a result of its assassination of Egyptian prime minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi on December 28, 1948, the Brotherhood was forced to go underground although its charities, hospitals, schools, social clubs, and youth groups remained intact for a time and continued to provide shelter, support and, most importantly, new recruits to the cause.
After an attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s life in 1954, however, all known Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt were rounded up and either executed or imprisoned. The organization might have withered to nothingness had it not been for Zaynab Ghazali’s Muslim Women’s Association (Jama’at as-Sayyidat al-Muslimat), which had pledged allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood and managed to provide
food, medical care, and other support to … help reconstitute the organization, serving as a liaison among dispersed members andsympathizers, and conducting seminars on Islam with activists in her home.
Over the next six decades, the legal status of the Brotherhood in Egypt seesawed between outright banning, to sporadic, intense repression, to a begrudging but limited acceptance, to a brief spell in power under Mohamed Mursi’s presidency. The organization has regularly franchised student, charitable, and even media wings throughout its sphere of influence while successfully camouflaging its relationship to these organizations. From the beginning, its “method was to employ flexibility [muruna] and concealment [taqiyaor kitman] in order to spread Islam,” especially in the West, and this wing charade was perpetuated either covertly or openly in every country to which the Brotherhood spread. In Jordan, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood is a legal group that participates in politics through its “political wing,” the Islamic Action Front, while its connections to Hamas account for its militant wing. The Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, itself a Brotherhood offshoot, retains a subsidiary called Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) as its charitable wing. Alongside supplying medical relief and establishing emergency clinics, JuD publishes a decidedly political weekly (Jarrar) and runs more than three hundred seminaries inculcating the Brotherhood’s Islamist message.
In the aftermath of 9/11, some of the Brotherhood’s secretive doings and strategic imperatives have begun to be uncovered by U.S. and European authorities. A document dated December 1, 1982, which came to be known as “The Project” was discovered in a 2001 raid on the home of Youssef Nada, the director of the at-Taqwa Bank of Lugano, Switzerland. In it, Muslims worldwide are exhorted to set up dawa (proselytization) groups in the form of charities and other religious, cultural, and political organizations, which can operate out in the open expressly for the purpose of providing cover for violent jihad.
“An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America” dated May 19, 1991, is another document that came to light that elaborates on the concept of wings, arms, and branches in the Brotherhood. Written by Muhammad Akram (a senior official of both the Brotherhood and Hamas) it calls for the destruction of American society through “civilizational jihad” modeled on the actions of the prophet Muhammad:
our prophet Muhammad … placed the foundation for the first civilized organization, which is the mosque, which truly became “the comprehensive organization.” And this was done by the pioneer of contemporary Islamic dawa, Imam martyr Hasan Banna … when he and his brothers felt the need to “reestablish” Islam and its movement anew, leading him to establish organizations with all their kinds: economic, social, media, scouting, professional, and even the military ones.
Akram concluded that America was “a country which understands no language other than the language of the organizations, and one which does not respect or give weight to any group without effective, functional and strong organizations” and cited as tools for the overall objective of overthrowing the United States a list of twenty-nine Brotherhood organizations including the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Students Association, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim American Society, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Occupied Land Fund (aka Holy Land Foundation).
Although these documents and their implications are in the public domain and were widely reported on in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, over time these wings have been treated by reporters and pundits as moderate organizations largely because they have not been involved in acts of violence. The Muslim Brotherhood itself received a tremendous boost to mainstream acceptance by none other than U.S. president Barack Obama who pushed to have its leadership invited to his now-infamous Cairo speech of June 4, 2009. The Obama administration has not only supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and abroad but has also served the group’s interests domestically, treating the organization as a moderate ally, even hiring Brotherhood activists for important posts influencing foreign policy. In the latest wrinkle to this stratagem, many of the original twenty-nine front groups listed in the explanatory memorandum have coalesced into an American Muslim Brotherhood political PAC called the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, in essence becoming the political wing of the charitable wing of a terrorist organization.
A.J. Caschetta is senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.