Osama bin Laden on the Muslim Brotherhood

One of the chief beneficiaries of the Arab Spring thus far has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which has gained power in Egypt and elsewhere. This did not escape Osama bin Laden’s attention prior to his demise. In one of the few documents released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point last week, bin Laden comments on the Brotherhood and urges al Qaeda members to avoid confrontations with the group for the time being. Bin Laden sees the Brotherhood as a “half solution” that is migrating to the “true Islam,” as defined by al Qaeda.

Here is the first key paragraph found in one of bin Laden’s missives, dated April 26, 2011, the week prior to the terror master’s death [emphasis added]:

Knowing that the movements calling for half solutions like the Brotherhood have witnessed a spread of the proper ideology among their membership in recent years, especially in the growing generations, and one of the Brotherhood members discussed that phenomenon in a lengthy question among the questions addressed to Sheikh Abu Muhammad; also it was mentioned in many of the media vehicles that there is a sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine, so the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time, with the will of Allah. The more attention paid to explaining Islamic understanding, the sooner their return is, so preserving the Muslim movements today and adjusting their direction requires effort and attention, keeping in mind the necessity of being kindly to the sons of the nation who fell under misguidance for long decades.

“Sheikh Abu Muhammad” in the paragraph above is likely Ayman al Zawahiri, who answered a “lengthy question” about the Brotherhood in one of his online interviews. It is interesting to note bin Laden’s comment about a “sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine” in light of how things have played out in Egypt. The Salafists there surprised many with the level of support they received from the populace.

Here is the second key paragraph found in the same letter from bin Laden [emphasis added]:

It would be nice to remind our brothers in the regions to be patient and deliberate, and warn them of entering into confrontations with the parties belonging to Islam, and it is probable that most of the areas will have governments established on the remnants of the previous governments, and most probable these governments will belong to the Islamic parties and groups, like the Brotherhood and the like, and our duty at this stage is to pay attention to the call among Muslims and win over supporters and spread the correct understanding, as the current conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam. The more time that passes and the call increases, the more the supporters will be of the people, and the more widespread will be the correct understanding among the coming generations of Islamic groups.

Now, this is just one document. Unlike the analysts at the CTC, I won’t jump to any conclusions based on this incredibly small sample. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are other documents in bin Laden’s cache in which he stridently criticizes the Brotherhood.

Al Qaeda’s public rhetoric has often been hostile to the Brotherhood. Al Qaeda sees the organization as a sellout because the Brothers are not willing to use violence at all costs and are willing to take part in democratic processes. (It is inaccurate to say, as many do, that the Brotherhood is entirely “nonviolent,” because senior Brothers routinely endorse violence in the Palestinian-controlled territories and against Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.)

While it wouldn’t be accurate to conflate al Qaeda and the Brotherhood, we should also not pretend that the two are entirely devoid of any common interests. Al Qaeda’s intellectual roots are found in the Brotherhood, and many al Qaeda leaders were once members of the organization.

Osama bin Laden was reportedly instructed by Brothers at a young age and may have entered the global jihad through the Brotherhood’s Syrian chapter. Ayman al Zawahiri was once a Brother, too, but decided that Hassan al Banna’s organization was not violent enough for him. And here is just one more example, chosen from many: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was a member of the Brotherhood before graduating to al Qaeda. KSM’s brothers were also in the Brotherhood; one of KSM’s brothers was even a leader in the Kuwaiti chapter and financed KSM for years.

The disagreements between the Brotherhood and al Qaeda are largely tactical, not ideological or strategic. While the Egyptian Brotherhood decided that violence was a loser after being routinely quashed by Hosni Mubarak’s regime, al Qaeda honchos like Ayman al Zawahiri decided to fight on.

Again, we shouldn’t draw any firm or broad conclusions from this one document. We can guess that others may show antagonism between the two. But at least in this one case, bin Laden was willing to work with the Brotherhood in the near-term, judging that the Brothers would see things his way eventually. Many commentators in the West believe, however, that the opposite will result from the “Arab Spring.”

Without delving too far into this complex matter, I’ll leave this post with one simple observation. Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed (just one week after penning the aforementioned letter), the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement referring to bin Laden as a “sheikh” and praising the “resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Sheikh” is, of course, an honorific title.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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