The Muslim Brotherhood's More Frightening Offshoot

While more and more Islamists despair of political participation, the Ummah party is training fighters in Syria for a widespread jihadist campaign.
Syrians attend a mass funeral for people whom anti-government protesters said were killed by Syrian security forces in earlier protests against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Duma near Damascus March 26, 2012. The poster, held by a funeral attendee, at the bottom right of the picture reads,"Call for the Arab League and Islamic Ummah to help the Syrian people, who need white cloth to cover their dead." (Reuters)

After millions of Egyptians and military elite torpedoed Muslim Brotherhood rule in that country this month, the next staunchest Arab adversary of the Brotherhood is the government of the United Arab Emirates. On July 2, that small Gulf nation sentenced 69 alleged Brotherhood activists to prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. Human rights groups reacted harshly to the ruling: Amnesty International called the trial "grossly unfair" and charges "bogus." In Washington, there is near consensus among think tanks and government research cadres that the UAE Brotherhood is a peaceful group, and the government's charges are dubious.

But scrutiny of the movement's writings, video productions, and social media shows otherwise. Senior UAE Brotherhood members have fought alongside an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and helped establish new militias of their own. A leader of the organizing party has stated that it aims not only to fight the Damascus regime but also to return home and wage war in the Gulf. The latter assertion may sound surprising in light of the conventional view that the Brotherhood seeks nonviolent change. But it's indicative of a new, growing strain of the movement that appears poised to rear its head in more countries than one -- particularly, in Egypt itself.

Most Western reporting on the UAE trial has focused on the local Brotherhood chapter known as Al-Islah, formally established in Dubai in 1974 and legal in the country for decades before it ran afoul of the establishment. But a new group known as the Ummah Party ("Hizb al-Ummah"), created after the Egyptian revolution by an Al-Islah cofounder, more obviously demonstrates why the government has been so aggressive in prosecuting the movement as a whole. Banned in the UAE, it is publicly affiliated with two other parties of the same name -- one in Saudi Arabia, where it's also illegal; the other, its flagship, in Kuwait, where it functions openly. The group's ideological writings reconcile Salafism's borderless struggle for global Islamization with the Brotherhood's more tailored approach of transforming countries one at a time. This is in essence the founding vision of Al-Qaeda as articulated by the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri and manifested by Arab fighters in Afghanistan who went on to attack their home countries and the West. Now a new battlefield appears to be fostering a similar convergence.

On March 5, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa became the first provincial capital to fall under rebel control in the ongoing conflict. It fell largely into the hands of the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate now designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and UN. Among the most celebrated "martyrs" on the rebel side of the battle, shot dead on March 3 by a Syrian government sniper, was a former colonel in the UAE military and Ummah Party cofounder, Muhammad al-Abduli. He had previously been jailed back home on suspicion of recruiting soldiers to join the Brotherhood. Myriad Islamist publications report that Abduli had arrived in Turkey with other UAE nationals, a few months before his death, and established a training camp. As word of his "martyrdom" spread, numerous co-nationals boasted of their connection to him -- notably, the current head of the UAE's Ummah Party, Hassan al-Duqqi, now a fugitive from the UAE, reportedly living in Turkey.

Presented by

Joseph Braude

is the author of The Honored Dead and a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s America Abroad.

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