May 10, 2019

Why the US move to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation is wrong – and counterproductive

When it comes to terrorism we have this odd obsession with groups. We study them, we dissect them, we map their internal organisations, we draw up ‘top-ten’ most wanted members, and in many instances countries have created ‘terrorist entity lists’ (here is a link to Canada’s for example). It is as if groups are what matters most when it comes to the terrorist threat.

Not surprisingly, I am going to argue against this prevailing view to some extent. Before doing so, I must acknowledge that there are some advantages to seeing terrorism through the lens of group membership. First and foremost it has the potential of making prosecutions easier: all a state has to do is legislate that belonging to group X is a criminal offence and if you are part of that group you are de facto guilty. There is also no question that groups provide logistics, training, materiel and ideological underpinnings that individuals would be hard pressed to acquire. The argument could also be made that as groups are more capable of large-scale attacks (think 9/11 or the recent massacres in Sri Lanka), although this capability is not exclusive to groups (the June 2016 Orlando club shootings would be a good example of a highly lethal individual attack) , we must focus on them.

On the other hand, this focus on groups can be disadvantageous. Groups come and go, necessitating constant monitoring to ensure that laws and lists are accurate. Indeed, some regularly change names to thwart this process (Al Muhajiroun in the UK is a great example of this). In many instances terrorists act alone or in small cells and although we often say that they are ‘inspired’ by a larger terrorist entity we cannot say they ‘belong’ to that entity. Of all the attacks/plots I worked on when I was at CSIS I am pretty sure not a single one was planned/executed by anyone who was an actual member of a listed terrorist entity. After all, isn’t everyone always talking about ‘lone wolves’, as inaccurate as that term is?

There is also the unfortunate obsession with listing a group as a terrorist entity even when that makes no sense, let alone is justified. This is exactly what appears to be happening with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Trump administration. At the behest of Egyptian ‘president’ (actually a military dictator) Sisi, the US is trying to list the MB, a decision that would have knock-on effects around the world as well as inside the US.

I do not want to re-hash why this is a dumb move: this short Carnegie piece does an admirable job of unpacking why this decision is both unfounded and unwarranted. I could also just dismiss as yet another capricious move by a president who appears to change his mind every time he is told something different by someone he meets. But there are larger issues at play here.

Aside from the fact that I for one do not believe the MB to be a terrorist organisation – even if some of its ‘offshoots’ (i.e. Hamas) are – the effort to designate it as such undermines the whole process. If the mechanisms used to determine which group is terrorist become political and are not based on the documented use of violence, the whole process is useless. As I noted in a previous blog, the overturning of the status of the MeK as a terrorist group was blatantly political. In addition, if having a list in the first place is supposed to engender certain penalties and preclude certain actions, why is the US, among others, entering into ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban in Afghanistan? Are they not terrorists?? Can you ‘negotiate’ with terrorists? Is that even allowed?

For the record I am not a fan of MB politics or governance: they certainly made a cock-up of their brief time in power in Egypt. But the decision to oust them from office should have been carried out at the point of a pencil (i.e. the ballot box), not at the point of a gun as Sisi did. The electorate can make these choices: on far too many occasions putschists have used the trope ‘one man, one vote, one time’ to justify why they had to intervene from allowing parties they did not like (i.e. Islamists) to gain power (under the fear that these parties would disband elections once they gain office).

So Mr. Trump, please allow the professionals in the room to make these decisions. Terrorism is already hard enough to counter without needlessly making it more difficult by listing the MB.