By David K. Shipler
Under a proposal reportedly circulating in the Trump administration, the Muslim Brotherhood would be listed by the Departments of State and Treasury as a terrorist organization. It would be a legally questionable step, given that the Brotherhood is so diffuse that it probably wouldn’t qualify as an “organization.” But at least until a successful court challenge, the designation could subject many Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to prosecution under the law that punishes those who provide “material support” to terrorist groups.
That is because key White House officials evidently accept the assertion by anti-Islam conspiracy theorists that many mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim rights associations in the United States are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood and training grounds for jihadists. Despite the absence of evidence, several top aides, including Trump’s senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, have given credence to activists who see a grand scheme engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate government, subvert the West, and impose shariah law—all this by Muslims who account for a mere 1 percent of the country’s population.
As chairman of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign, Bannon provided a large megaphone to the small fringe of anti-Muslim propagandists. He distributed their alarmist warnings without a hint of skepticism, and without raising questions about their sources, which invariably disintegrate under scrutiny. Flynn served on the board of advisers for ACT for America, a radical group that agitates against Islamic centers and organizations.
Islamic centers throughout the United States house mosques, schools, and facilities for community gatherings. But their image of innocent good works masks a sinister purpose, according to John Guandolo, a former FBI agent and periodic guest on a show Bannon hosted, broadcast on SiriusXM Radio. In a December 2015 edition, for example, Bannon accepted without challenge Guandolo’s contention that over 75 percent of the Islamic centers are “owned by the North American Islamic Trust, which is the bank for the Muslim Brotherhood here.”
Various domestic terrorists “were supported and trained” in such centers, Guandolo charged. The proof? That the attackers had frequented the centers. “Where did they attend?” he asked of the married couple who killed 14 and wounded 22 in San Bernardino, California. “The Islamic Center of Riverside, a Muslim Brotherhood center. The Boston [Marathon] bombers were from the Islamic Society of Boston,” he declared. “All these incidents you can trace back to Muslim Brotherhood centers, where they were trained.” In the usual smear of guilt by association, the individual is indicted by association with a group. In Guandolo’s inverted version, it’s the opposite: The organization is condemned by the occasional presence of one or two people who turn out to be terrorists. That was it; he provided no substantiation that they had been “trained” there.
Nevertheless, Bannon was eating this up as Guandolo continued by slamming law enforcement’s blindness to the Muslim menace. “The network that supported these attacks is not being touched,” Guandolo said in the broadcast. He put in a little plug for his struggling business, named Understanding the Threat, which tries to get police and sheriffs’ departments to hire him to train officers in the looming danger of the Brotherhood. The country’s law enforcement leaders, he told Bannon, “have no idea that this is going on inside the United States.”
Bannon greeted the line eagerly. “You’re talking about something so deep, so widespread,” he said. “It sounds even more serious than a fifth column.” Then he promised that Guandolo was “gonna be on this show a lot.”
I spent a few days in a couple of Guandolo’s training courses, examined the documents that he and others in this cottage industry present as evidence of the infiltration and subversive designs, and sent questions to some of the most visible proponents of the conspiracy theories, including Frank Gaffney, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who has been interviewed recently by otherwise respectable news organizations, such as NPR and the BBC.
Gaffney, denounced by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes,” helped with the Trump transition. On the slick website of his Center for Security Policy, he promotes a daily radio program, videos and writings, a book entitled Shariah: The Threat to America, and a handbook on how local citizens can legally resist the construction of mosques.
In March 2016, Bannon’s Breitbart News ran an article by Gaffney accusing Hillary Clinton of encouraging a “serious betrayal of US national interests” by relying on her aide Huma Abedin, who had been labeled by rightwing websites as having “well-documented personal and family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” in Gaffney’s words. Describing a Clinton campaign appearance in Los Angeles, he wrote, “Seated next to a prominent Islamic supremacist with longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, she nodded like a bobbing-head doll as he dissembled about Islam, fraudulently professed a commitment to ‘partnership’ with law enforcement to prevent radicalization, and criticized those who know better.”
Gaffney counts himself as one who knows better, but drilling into his sources yields only a dry well. When I asked him several years ago to provide the “ominous bit of evidence” he had mentioned in a video on the coming apocalypse, he replied first with silence, then after repeated requests had an assistant refer me to two colleagues in the anti-Islam business, neither of whom could cite the “evidence.”
Most arguments on Islam’s nefarious aspirations trace back to a single document, dated May 22, 1991, and entitled “An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America.” It is the linchpin of the anti-Islam cult, which routinely distorts it into an authoritative policy plan by the Muslim Brotherhood in America, when a plain reading shows it to be merely a proposal by a mid-level figure. In words never quoted by the anti-Muslim campaigners, the author, writing to superiors, pleads that they “not rush to throw these papers away. . . . All that I’m asking of you is to read them and to comment on them.”
Yet Gaffney calls the memo the “Rosetta stone for the Muslim Brotherhood, its goals, modus operandi, and infrastructure in America. It is arguably the single most important vehicle for understanding a secretive organization.”
Much is made of the memo’s proposal for a “Civilization-Jihadist Process” and its appendix naming Muslim groups as “our organizations and the organizations of our friends. Imagine if they all march according to one plan!!!”
No copy of the document has been discovered other than the one found in a trove of files seized by the FBI in a house in Virginia. It was included in a mass of papers dumped into evidence against the Holy Land Foundation, which the Bush Justice Department prosecuted in 2007 for conveying funds to Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Hamas, which rules Gaza brutally, is in fact a designated terrorist organization. But in the early 1980s, before Hamas emerged, Israel’s military governor in Gaza told me that he was funneling money to the Brotherhood as a counterpoint to the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose advocacy of a Palestinian state Israel then opposed.
Since then, the Brotherhood has become amorphous, shifting shapes, devolving into fairly independent chapters in various places, renouncing violence, and participating in politics elsewhere. That would make it impossible legally to put on the terrorist list, as Benjamin Wittes argues in Lawfare, because it is “too diffuse and diverse to characterize.” Individual chapters promoting terrorism could be listed, he notes, but not in the U.S., for the law allows only “a foreign organization” to be designated.
Furthermore, the statute provides for designation based not on ideology, which would surely violate the First Amendment, but requires a showing that it “engages in terrorist activity ... or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity.” Even Bannon and Flynn might find it hard to make such a case. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. If they succeed, they would be laying the groundwork for unjust prosecutions—until the courts can intervene.