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.
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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.

Party leadership has signaled that its agenda for violent action goes far beyond Syria. On March 31, after announcing his own meeting with an Al-Nusra commander in Syria, Saudi Ummah Party chief Muhammad bin Sa'd al-Mufarrih tweeted, "Be happy, o Arabian peninsula, for more than 12,000 of your jihadist sons are in Syria, all of them sworn by Almighty God to your liberation. ('And even 12,000 cannot be defeated.')" The "Arabian peninsula" is understood in context to mean Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The quote at the end of the Tweet is part of an oral tradition of the prophet Muhammad in which the latter foresees an army of 12,000 arising from Arabia to lead the Muslim world in reestablishing the caliphate.

Estimates of foreign fighters in Syria indicate that the number 12,000 is an exaggeration. But if only as a statement of aspiration, Mufarrih's words carry weight in light of the party's operational achievements: To date, two Islamist brigades in Syria -- bringing together fighters from the Gulf, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, and elsewhere -- have been cofounded and co-funded by the party's leadership: the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham ("Free Men of the Levant") and Liwaa al-Ummah ("Banner of the Nation") were established with grants from the party's Kuwaiti founder, Hakim al-Mutayri. The UAE colonel Abduli is credited with having trained members of Ahrar al-Sham. The relationship between the Liwaa al-Ummah brigade and the Ummah party also manifests on social media: Online, the brigadelargely retweets statements by party leaders, and its Facebook page sings their praises.

In sum, publicly available source materials alone give cause for concern that UAE, Saudi, and Kuwaiti Brotherhood elements have been using Syria to prepare for a violent campaign in the Gulf. While the Ummah Party also calls in its literature for peaceful rotations of power, it would seem in light of its other statements and actions that such claims are deceitful.

Two years after the Arab spring, the regional landscape is a mix of enduring autocracies, battlegrounds, and transitioning states in which an only recently empowered Brotherhood faces a popular backlash. It's harder for Brotherhood elements truly committed to pluralism and civil society to make their case among fellow Islamists. In this climate, the likes of the Ummah Party are poised to gain traction -- in the Gulf states and region-wide, particularly in Egypt. A supporter of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, appearing on the Islamist satellite network Al-Yaqin earlier this month, couldn't have put it better: "I say to [Egyptian army chief Abd al-Fattah al-] Sisi, he should know that he has created a new Taliban and a new Al-Qaeda in Egypt ... and they will destroy you and destroy Egypt." At 809, 500 hits and counting on YouTube, the speaker appears to have hit a nerve.

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Joseph Braude

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

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