British prime minister David Cameron’s announcement on March 31 that his government would be looking into the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the United Kingdom and potential links to terrorism was reported around the world. Cameron has charged John Jenkins, his knowledgeable ambassador to Saudi Arabia, with heading a review of the MB’s philosophy and activities, while MI5 and MI6, the intelligence services, will look into the MB’s potential links to terrorism. While a case can be made that the government is responding to pressure from countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, one should not discount the domestic aspect—the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing presence in the United Kingdom.
Europe has been very much the second home of the movement since the 1960s—initially as a base for exiled members of the group, and later as a theater of operations in its own right. Concerns regarding the Brotherhood’s activities—ranging from its impact on the ability of Muslims to integrate into European societies to its links with violent extremist movements—have been raised in numerous countries. Following a brief period of electoral success in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, the MB is now under attack on almost all fronts. A combination of public protests, internal repression, and wider geopolitical pressures has arguably left the MB more imperiled in the Arab world than it has been in decades. To compensate for these setbacks, the MB now seems to be seeking to expand its exploitation of Europe as a safe haven for its leaders, a financial center, recruiting ground, and forum in which to exercise political and social influence.
And London is the center. This has been all the truer since the ouster of Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013. Several top MB officials from Egypt now call London home, among them MB spiritual leader Gomaa Amin and Salim Al-Awa, chief of Morsi’s defense committee and president of the MB parallel government in London.
Also in November 2013, a who’s who of international MB members gathered in London to discuss strategy. Mahmoud Ezzat, the deputy supreme guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, viewed by many as the group’s “iron man,” was present. The MB moved its media headquarters to London, where the English-language website Ikhwanweb.com was already based. And on March 30, 2014, a London-based, Qatari-financed newspaper, Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, was launched. Given all this, the urgency of determining the true nature of the MB’s presence in Europe has never been greater.
Publicly, Europe’s MB affiliates have sought to define themselves as enemies of extremism. Key leaders, however, have been consistently dogged by allegations that they provide ideological and financial support for violent movements outside Europe. The MB itself may not actively encourage violence against European targets, but it does divert those it influences away from any path but Islamism. It is therefore inevitable that some who adopt the outlook of the MB will gravitate toward direct action. In light of this, the British government’s need to educate itself about the MB is obvious.
The security threat the MB poses to Europe is difficult to define. Certainly, the organization is not foolish enough to directly support or openly encourage attacks in Europe. While there is a lack of consensus among the European security services regarding the danger posed by the MB, any moves toward active involvement in domestic terrorism by the group would result in a level of scrutiny from the authorities that would make its day-to-day operations impossible.
So why has Cameron intensified scrutiny now? Almost every commentator offered the explanation that the United Kingdom had been pressed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But this may be only part of the picture.
While it is true that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have banned the Muslim Brotherhood in the past five months, there were no immediate signs of Britain’s succumbing to pressure. On the contrary, right after Egypt declared the MB a terrorist organization in December 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was swift to come to the group’s defense, stating that the Muslim Brotherhood was an “entirely legal organization” in the United Kingdom. This is consistent with Britain’s history of cozying up to Islamists since the 1970s. Indeed, the recent decision is quite a turnaround for Britain.
But assume for a moment that Saudi Arabia in particular had pushed for Cameron’s inquiry. It is true that by appointing Jenkins, the sitting ambassador to a country that has banned the Brotherhood, to head part of the investigation, Cameron opened himself to criticism. But if the reason for the inquiry were actually related to commercial and financial interests, then Qatar, the largest and most vocal supporter of the Brotherhood, would also have come into the picture and would have opposed any investigation. Indeed, Qatar is one of the main foreign investors in Britain, having poured an estimated $11 billion into Royal Dutch Shell, $2.8 billion into Barclays Bank, $2.5 billion into Harrods, $2.3 billion into Sainsbury, $1.7 billion into the London Stock Exchange, and over $8.4 billion into prime London real estate.
In light of this massive commercial relationship, it was not in London’s interests to anger Qatar. So why would Cameron move forward?
What is also at play and has been underappreciated in the coverage is the potential discontent of Britain’s European allies, in particular France. Many European nations must have been displeased to see London becoming a major MB hub, especially at a time when even Tunisia was refusing MB leaders asylum.
Though foreign influence must have played a role in Cameron’s decision, domestic considerations cannot be discounted. Yes, the MB in England has been peaceful for the past 40 years, but no one knows how the arrival of members of the global MB will affect the local Islamist scene. This is relevant to possible developments in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, but also to concern over the large number of British citizens joining the jihad in Syria, estimated at some 700.
Another troubling development is that on April 26 al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, expressed support for the incarcerated members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and called for the kidnapping of non-Muslims all over the world. Also, according to terrorism expert Aimen Dean of the Five Dimensions consulting group in Dubai, there are strong indications that the MB is supplying intelligence, information, and money to two al Qaeda-related groups in Egypt, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Masr. This could spell trouble for foreign nationals and in particular Britons there.
The British government has a responsibility to ensure its citizens’ safety at home and abroad. Therefore it needs to make sure that members of the MB newly arriving in Britain will not get involved in any type of violence on, or launched from, British soil. This too is what is at stake in Cameron’s move.
Olivier Guitta is the director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank in London. Camelia Assem assisted in researching this article.