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The Challenge of Failed and Failing States, The Muslim Brotherhood and Radical Islam*

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by Douglas Farah
Published on July 11th, 2007
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I want to try to frame the changing world in a way that I hope helps you see what some of the major shifts are, in the world in which you play in important role in helping to make sense of. I hope to then describe the emergence of this generation of radical Islamist movements and the root from which most of these groups emerge, The Muslim Brotherhood.

I have spent more than two decades in what we now call "grey areas" or "stateless" areas of the world. I was there as a newspaper reporter, with the freedom to talk to all sides without a political agenda or the representation of a government.

I was able to spend significant time with the FMLN in El Salvador, the Contras and Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the ELN and FARC in Colombia, Mara Salvatrucha and other Central American gangs, the RUF in Sierra Leone, different armed groups and the government in Charles Taylor’s Liberia, the Kamajors (pro-government militias, made up primarily of local hunters, and others.

This is only to say that my view of these areas is from the bottom up, not from the top down.

It is useful to review a bit of how much the world has changed in the past decade as we face two twin and seemingly contradictory phenomena that are occurring, and in some cases are facilitating the spread of radical Islam:

The first trend is global integration through free trade, the dawn of the Internet age and mass migrations. Borders are little more than imaginary lines on a map. Goods flow further and faster across the globe than any time in history.

The second trend is global disintegration as states implode, government structures fracture under the accumulated scourges of corruption, poverty and renewed ethnic rivalries, and the massive traffic in small weapons that gives more and more groups the possibility of waging conflict at very little cost.

The shift from state-centric threats to non-state threats has been quick and devastating. Here is a snap shot drawn from three World Bank studies[1] over the past year and reinforced in a recent survey by Foreign Policy Magazine and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.[2] Both sets of metrics look at economic development, state legitimacy, human rights, demographic pressures, public services and citizen security to determine where countries rank on a global scale.

Those nations at the bottom have become know as "failed states" or "fragile states," terms that have come into vogue to describe the growing areas of the world that lie beyond the control of central governments.

The number of states has grown from 51 in 1945, to more than 200 today. In 1996, only 11 states were judged to be failing across the world. By 2003, a scant seven years later, the number had grown to 17, and by 2006 the number was 26.

And the situation is not getting better. By far the largest number of failed states—16 of 26—are in Africa. Most alarming is that the countries that serve as economic engines for entire regions—as well as hold strategic interest for the United States, were added to the list last year.

One is Nigeria, which produces 2.45 million barrels a day of petroleum[3] and is the anchor of a region that, taken together, produces about 5 million barrels a day. By 2015 the region is projected to be supplying about 20 percent of U.S. petroleum needs and 40 percent of its natural gas imports.[4] Nigeria is also is the home to several radical Islamist groups in the north, where sharia law has been implemented.

The second is Cote d’Ivoire, which poses a different set of challenges. Once the most stable nation in the West African region, it now has a large Muslim population that is increasingly disaffected and a central government that is near collapse. This is just a snapshot of a continent in deepening crisis, where natural resources are increasingly valuable and the extraction of those resources is increasingly in the hands of the highest bidder or the best armed militia.

This rapid collapse of coherent ideological blocs and clearly-identifiable national security interests has led to most conflicts being fought over the "honey pots" on the continent (and elsewhere in the world)-- a sharp change from the ideological battles of the Cold War. Today, militias with access to the almost unlimited supply of AK-47s, RPGs and millions of rounds of ammunition that continue to pour from the arsenals of the former Soviet bloc, wage wars for timber concessions, diamonds, iron ore, bauxite and coltan rather than socialism, democracy or Marxism.

The term "failed states" gives an alarming, but not entirely accurate portrayal of the world where the nation-state members abiding in an agreed-upon international order is steadily diminishing.

We see situations like Afghanistan under the Taliban, or Somalia today, where an entire state is failed. More often, however, it is in the "Grey areas of territoriality" that these groups operate, spreading across pockets of several states. The Centre for Strategic Studies in The Hague proposed using the term "black holes" rather than "failed states" to define the problem, and identified 41 such "black holes" outside the Western world. Most involve at least two states, and most involve more.[5]

No matter how they are defined, these regions of the world now offer formidable challenges. Some 500 million people living in areas that are usually safe havens in which armed groups can establish secure centers for self-protection, training, planning and launching regional and transnational operations. These include transnational criminal organizations, terrorists, militias and insurgent groups.[6]

Last year Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "The danger (failed states) pose is now unparalleled.  Absent responsible state authority, threats that would and should be contained within a country’s borders can now melt into the world and wreak untold havoc."

"Weak and failing states," Rice wrote, "serve as global pathways that facilitate the spread of pandemics, the movement of criminals and terrorists, and the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons."

But such recognition by Rice, leaders of the World Bank and the Intelligence Community has not led to significant efforts to stem the trend or begin to seriously study how and why states fail and the consequences such failures have for U.S. strategic interests. The intelligence communities, both in the United States and Europe, remain largely state-centric in their focus.

This is not entirely irrational. States such as Iran, North Korea, and some of the former Soviet states that still control nuclear material, are tier-one threats.

But I would argue that the non-state threats can and often do pose the same level of threat, but little of the necessary intelligence architecture needed to develop an understanding of the numerous varieties of failed states and even broader array of non-state groups is in place.

I want to draw an important distinction between those areas where states have little or no power in large areas that may overlap into other states, and states where the state in fact has a virtual monopoly on power and the use of force. In the first, what little order exists is likely to be imposed by trans-border armed militias or criminal groups, but the state cannot or will not exercise power.

The second is where states in fact exercise considerable control over the areas in question, but turn the state into a functioning criminal enterprise for the benefit of a small elite. There is a third, hybrid variation of the previous two, where a functioning state essentially turns over part of its territory to non-state groups to carry out their own agenda with the blessing and protection of the central government or a regional power. The latter two cannot, in fact, be considered to be failed states in an operational sense, although they may fail to meet the needs of their citizens.

The following examples can help clarify what these distinctions mean. Many parts of Colombia, along with Somalia and the Tri-Border Area in South America fit the first category and could be considered "black holes." Afghanistan under the Taliban and Liberia under Charles Taylor are examples of the second category. Sudan, with is support of the janjaweed and radical Islamist groups, and Hezbollah with the support of Iran and Syria are an examples of the third. All can provide hospitable conditions for non-state armed groups to flourish.

Why are these areas important from the perspective of fighting terrorism and the movement of terror money and people? Because of the tremendous theological and ideological importance of the establishment of the "Caliphate"--God’s kingdom on earth--to the new generations of Islamist radicals. The establishment of the Caliphate is a central part of the narrative the groups believe guide human destiny in accordance with the will of Allah. It is fundamental to understanding what drives them in their desire to spread Islam, by force or otherwise, across the globe.

To understand the current trends in radical Islam, particularly in this context, the trends in radical Sunni Islam, we need to look back to the end of the last caliphate, or Islamic government that finally ended in 1924. Four years after the end of the caliphate a young Egyptian man by the name of Hassan al Banna (1906-1949), the son of a middle class family, dismayed at the penetration of Western culture in his homeland and the secularization of Islamic nations, founded The Muslim Brotherhood (officially known as al-Ikhwan al-Moslemoon).

Al-Banna called for establishment of a world Islamic state governed by sharia or Koranic law, ruled by a single caliph. The central premise was that Islam is a unified way of life, not a religious belief system in which private worship of Allah is separate from the public sphere. This is emphasized in the Brotherhood’s creed:

· God is our objective

· The Koran is our constitution

· The Prophet is our leader

· Jihad is our way

· Death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.

The Brotherhood grew rapidly in Egypt, and soon spread to other Islamic nations as a Muslim reawakening took root. Al Banna used the traditional social structures to create a secretive organization that maintained a public presence but also a clandestine structure, including a "special apparatus," or armed wing. The Brotherhood sent fighters to Palestine in 1948-49, and was formally abolished by the Egyptian government in December 1948. A few weeks later the Brotherhood assassinated the prime minister, Nuqrashi Pasha. Brotherhood leaders were rounded up, jailed and tortured. Al Banna was killed in February 1949, presumably by state security agents.

Al Banna was followed by a young man who would become equally influential, both in the Brotherhood and in outlining the key theological architecture that guides the broader Islamist movement we see today. He was Sayid Qutb, a school teacher and minor bureaucrat who spent two years in the United States (1948-1950) getting his master’s degree in education.

Qutb believed that not only was Islam in retreat but that the rest of the world was now in a state of jihiliyya, or pre-Islamic ignorance and utter darkness. His thinking crystallized in a slim tract, "Milestones," distilled from his larger, multi-volume work, "In the Shade of the Koran." "Milestones" succinctly outlines not only the dismal state of the rest of the world, but the duty of Islam to dispel the darkness by spreading Islam by whatever means available, "until there is no more oppression and all submit to Allah alone," as the Koran states. All non-Islamic states were deemed illegitimate, including that of his native Egypt. Only the Koran, with its laws (including the relegation of women to unequal status, death to homosexuals and adulterers, stoning, amputation, and death to anyone who converts from Islam etc.), is viewed as legitimate.[7]

Fundamental to fulfilling one’s duty to Allah is re-establishing, in a real and physical sense, the Caliphate, from whence Allah’s kingdom on earth could spread. The first phase would be re-establishing Islamic rule in areas once ruled by Muslims at the height of their territorial control, spreading from Spain to Southeast Asia. Doing this is a justifiable form of "defensive jihad," or holy war, because, in this view, the land rightfully belongs to Islam and taking it back is simply retaking stolen property.

Defensive jihad in Islam is accepted as legitimate and is not controversial, whereas offensive jihad is more controversial. By establishing the first step of territorial expansion as simply defensive, it laid the foundation for future violent acts.

From there, the Caliphate would spread to the rest of the world, to lead all creation to the perfect state promised by Koranic law. While other Islamist leaders in recent centuries have embraced the concept of jihiliyya, and other basic tenets of "Milestones," Qutb’s interpretation was far broader than most of Islam traditionally accepted, but this thinking was widely embraced in the Islamic world. For example, it is paralleled in the 1950 work of Sayyid Maududi, founder of the Jama’at I Islami in Pakistan, in his work, "Toward Understanding the Koran."

Qutb spent most of his latter years in an Egyptian prison, and was hanged in 1966. Yet Milestones remains one of the most influential texts in the Muslim world, and has been in print for four decades. It is sold and extolled on websites of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as being the seminal work for the salafist/jihadi movements that are spreading across the globe.

The Brotherhood has now grown to have branches in more than 70 countries, as well as a separate international organization that runs its own banks, businesses and offshore structure across the globe. These structures control billions of dollars worldwide.

With Qutb’s death, the Brotherhood made a concerted effort to spread out of Egypt and Arab lands to Europe and the United States. It is in the 1960s, following a broadly-coordinated strategy, the Brothers began establishing student groups, mosques, think tanks, publishing houses and investing in both Europe and the United States. Steve Emerson’s book, Jihad in America, is perhaps the most comprehensive look at the Brotherhood structures in the United States. Far more detailed information has come to light recently in the government exhibits in the Holy Land Foundation case is Dallas, Texas.[8]

Here, the strategy has widely been to create political conditions that will lead to the establishment of Caliphate. Rather than waging war, the strategy -- as described publicly by Youseff al Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s chief theologian -- is to set up Islamic enclaves where sharia law can be implemented, on a neighborhood, local, municipal, and eventually, a state and national level. The goal remains the same, implementation of sharia law.

The strategy is not predicated on the premise that violent action would be wrong, but rather that it is simply impractical at this time. As Qaradawi wrote with astonishing frankness:

"We depend on others for military power. Those against whom we want to launch our offensive jihad are the same people who make all sorts of weapons and sell them to us. But for them, we would be unarmed, defenseless and unable to do anything!

That being the case, how can we talk of launching offensives to subject the whole world to our Message, when the only weapons we can muster are those given us by them and when the only arms we can carry are those they agree to sell us?"[9]

Where do we see the reach of the Muslim Brotherhood in violent Islamist action? Almost everywhere.

As Jonathan Winer, a former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told Congress in 2002, the Brotherhood "has played a central role in providing both the ideological and technical capacities for supporting terrorist finance on a global basis…the Brotherhood has spread both the ideology of militant pan-Islamicism and became the spine upon which the funding operations for militant pan-Islamicism was built, taking funds largely generated from wealthy Gulf state elites and distributing them for terrorist education, recruitment and operations widely dispersed throughout the world, especially in areas where Muslims hoped to displace non-Muslim or secular governments."[10]

A non-exhaustive list of the militant Islamists and organizations that emerged from the Brotherhood’s ranks includes many now-familiar names: Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheik" responsible killing hundreds of civilians, now serving a life sentence in New York for planning terrorist attacks in the United States; the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), founded and funded by the Brotherhood in 1987, and identified as the Muslim Brotherhood in its Charter; Ayman Zawahiri, founder of the Brotherhood-based Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and currently Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy; Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s teacher of Islamic Studies at the university in Saudi Arabia who later went on to Afghanistan and eventually became a co-founder of al Qaeda; Hassan al-Turabi, the Sudanese National Islamic Front leader who was bin Laden’s benefactor and host during bin Laden’s stay in Sudan. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the 9-11 attacks, told U.S. interrogators he was drawn to violent jihad in Kuwait after joining the Brotherhood and attending its desert youth camps. Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon accused Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the alleged mastermind of the March 11, 2004 attack on a Spanish train that killed 198 people, and most of the others implicated in the attack, of belonging to the Brotherhood.

Persons lesser known in the United States, but prominent in the Brotherhood, who have been designated as terrorist supporters by the U.S. Treasury Department and the United Nations include: Yousef Nada, an Egyptian and naturalized Italian citizen who joined the Brotherhood at 16, and identifies himself as the Brotherhood’s foreign minister; his frequent business partner, Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, a wealthy Eritrean; and Albert Huber, leader of Switzerland’s neo-Nazi movement and Holocaust denier. This group founded Bank al Taqwa and other offshore financial institutions based in Nassau, Bahamas, institutions that were shut down in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as entities financing Islamist terrorism.

It is true that al Qaeda and its affiliated groups have often had bitter disputes with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not one and the same. But, on the most crucial issues they share a common vision and common objectives. The differences are largely over tactics, not ultimate objectives.

It is interesting to note that Bin Laden received harsh criticism from jihadist groups after 9-11 for losing Afghanistan as the seat of Caliphate. Somalia was repeatedly and publicly defined by salafist-jihadi groups as a battleground for establishing the Caliphate, as was Bosnia, and Afghanistan before it. The narrative of the salafist movement is intimately tied to the concept of creating Allah’s kingdom on earth, and it is shared by the Muslim Brotherhood.

How does this relate to the rapidly changing world outlined in the beginning? If one looks at the terrorist attacks on the United States over the past decade, almost all were carried out by non-state armed groups operating from rogue states or regions defined as "black holes". This is true of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and, of course, 9-11. Many of the ideological underpinnings, and the much of the salafist river of money that flows to radical Islamists, pass through the Muslim Brotherhood.

As these stateless regions and criminal states proliferate, so does the threat from terrorists and transnational criminal gangs and groups who seek out these regions for operational security, training and financial gain. I want to go through one case study that illustrates the growing dangers.

Story of al Qaeda-Hezbollah in Liberia

I would like to look briefly at a state that was, in my experience, the paradigm of a state functioning as a criminal enterprise: Liberia under Charles Taylor. Taylor took control of most of the country in 1995 and was elected president in 1997.[11]

The Liberian state, while failing to meet the basic needs of its people, and fulfilling virtual none of the traditional roles of states (defending national borders, providing basic education and health services, sanitation, garbage collection, mail delivery), had a virtual monopoly on power. Under Taylor’s direction, the extraction of timber, diamonds and gold were carried out with relative efficiency, but the benefits went to Taylor and his inner circle and business partners.[12]

What are the advantages of this type of state, and why are they important?

Because of his control over a criminal state, rather than a stateless region, Taylor was able to offer several important advantages to both transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups. Control of points of entry and exit, and the issuance of diplomatic passports, were used to grant protection to internationally-wanted criminals and terrorists, who in turn were able to bring economic benefit to the Liberian elite.

By 1998, Taylor had Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Russian organized crime, Ukrainian organized crime, Israeli organized crime, various South African and other regional enterprises and Chinese (PRC) timber companies violating international timber laws operating simultaneously in Liberia. That is no small feat for one year in office.

Taylor was able to:

issue diplomatic passports to internationally-wanted criminals (Sanjivan Ruprah);

control the points of entry and exit to his country, ensuring the safety of his guests, who included Hezbollah and al Qaeda operatives;

use his country’s aircraft registry to register rogue airlines and aircraft, and;

buy massive amounts of weapons illegally on the world market, including multi-million dollar dealings with the Russian weapons merchant Viktor Bout.[13]

The consequences of these capabilities led to one of the most vicious wars in modern times, while empowering terrorist and criminal organizations. Taylor’s abduction of children to fight, the amputation of arms and legs of thousands of civilians, and the systematic use of rape as weapon of control and fear, devastated an entire region and it will take generations for these societies to recover.

What did al Qaeda gain? Access to diamond buying and smuggling networks that allowed it to convert tens of millions of dollars in cash to a commodity that was easy to hide, transport and convert back to cash when necessary.

This brings me back to the first phenomenon discussed: As many Cold War-era alliances are diminished, new power configurations are emerging. As state power shifts in a variety of ways, globalization ensures that we are more connected than ever to each other. What happens in Liberia and Afghanistan has direct, traceable effects on us and our security. The worlds of Islamist terrorism and organized criminal networks are increasingly intertwined.

Today, 80 years after its founding, the global Muslim Brotherhood is an integral part of the adaptation of Islamist thought and financing in the new world order, providing an ideological and functional coherence to disparate Islamist movements. As these groups seek out the "black holes" of the world as operational spaces, the Brotherhood expands its capacity to accelerate the spread of an exclusionist ideology of hatred which seeks to impose sharia law on all of us, to supersede all sovereign states. and to fight to end Western civilization and its tradition of reason and tolerance based on the sanctity of the individual and freedom of choice. That is why the Muslim Brotherhood, and its nexus to failed and failing states, poses a serious challenge to all of us.

* Adapted from a presentation to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


[1] "Engaging with Fragile States: An IEG Review of World Bank Support to Low-Income Countries Under Stress," The World Bank, September 2006, Washington, D.C., accessed at http://www.worldbank.org/ieg.

[2] "The Failed State Index 2007," Foreign Policy Magazine, Jul7-August 2007, pp. 54-63.

[3] http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ni.html#Econ

[4] Estimates provided by Gen. Charles Wald, Deputy Commander, U.S. European Command, in interview with author in spring 2005.

[5] Rem Korteweg and David Ehrhardt, "Terrorist Black Holes: A Study Into Terrorist Sanctuaries and Governmental Weakness," Centre for Strategic Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, 2005.

[6] For a fuller discussion of these types of non-state movements, see: Richard H. Shultz et al, "Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority," Institute for National Security Studies, Occasional Paper No. 57, September 2004.

[7] The most readily available version of the book is published by the Mother Mosque Foundation of Cedar Rapids, IA.

[8] For a summary of what the exhibits show about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood-related groups in the United States, see Farah and Sandee, "The Ikhwan in America," http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefahlf0807.pdf.

[9] Yousuf al-Qaradawi, "Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase," April, 1990, accessed at: http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/Q_Priorities/index.htm.

[10] Testimony of Jonathan Winer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement, before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, July 31, 2003.

[11] For a fuller discussion of the war and mineral extraction, see: Douglas Farah, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, Broadway Books, New York, 2004.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a fuller discussion of Taylor and Bout, see: Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible, J. Wiley and Sons, New York, 2007.

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