The UAE’s Brotherhood Problem

by Joseph Braude

Over the past year, the government of the United Arab Emirates has arrested more than 94 alleged Muslim Brotherhood activists on charges of plotting to topple the state. Prosecutors say the group has engaged in money laundering, underground recruitment and brainwashing of young members, and that it established a military wing for a campaign of terrorism against the country. Alongside its domestic crackdown, the UAE government also engaged in an international war of words with the Brotherhood.

Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan called it “an organization that encroaches on the sovereignty and integrity of nations.” Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the police chief of the emirate of Dubai, called the Brotherhood a “grave danger to Gulf security” and claimed that the movement plans to “seize power in all the Gulf states by 2016.” Then, on July 2, the Abu Dhabi court convicted 69 of the suspects and sentenced them to prison.

Many voices in the West reacted to the UAE’s campaign with skepticism and concern. Following the initial wave of arrests in January 2013, a joint statement by six human rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, called the detainees “peaceful human rights defenders and political activists.”

“It appears that ‘national security’ has been used as a pretext by the Emirati authorities to stifle dissent and repress all activists asking for democratic reforms and respect for human rights,” the statement said.

Publications by the U.S. State Department and Congressional Research Service generally agree with human rights organizations that the UAE Brotherhood is a non-violent group, and similarly assess the government’s crackdown as an attempt to stifle legitimate political dissent. Even the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which typically opposes to the Brotherhood’s regional designs, highlighted the UAE government’s “climate of secrecy and intimidation” in prosecuting the Brotherhood suspects, noting that international legal observers and foreign media were banned from attending court sessions.

“In this climate,” wrote the Institute’s Lori Plotkin Boghardt, “it is impossible to assess whether the government faces a real threat of subversion from the defendants and, if so, the extent of it.” And following the court convictions, Amnesty issued a new statement dubbing the charges “bogus” and the trial “grossly unfair.”

But a long-term independent investigation into UAE Brotherhood activism, including scrutiny of the group’s writings, video productions, social media communication and interviews with members of the movement, indicates that the UAE faces a serious threat from its Brotherhood activists.

Earlier this year, senior UAE Brotherhood members traveled to the battlefield in Syria, where they fought alongside an Al-Qaeda affiliate and helped establish two new fighting groups. A leader of the party stated publicly that his combatants in Syria aimed not only to support the rebellion against the regime in Damascus but also return home and wage war in the Gulf. This brash assertion, in turn, comports with a long trail of ideological writings by UAE Brotherhood stalwarts that encourage calls to overthrow the government in Abu Dhabi.

Viewed together, the UAE Brotherhood’s statements and actions closely resemble those of an older generation of Brotherhood activists who trained and fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s then brought their expertise home to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and elsewhere to wage terrorist campaigns in the 1990s.

The UAE Brotherhood is not alone today in this respect. Foreign fighters from numerous Arab and Muslim countries have already begun to depart Syria and attempt to carry out attacks elsewhere. This new dynamic troublingly coincides, in turn, with growing calls by Brotherhood affiliates region-wide to abandon political participation and return to the older strategy of armed attacks against host governments − a trend only stoked by the recent ouster of Egyptian president and Brotherhood stalwart Mohamed Morsi following mass protests and military action last month. This nexus of events poses severe implications for the Gulf states, the broader Arab region and Western countries, though American policymakers have barely begun to grapple with it.

Western reports on the UAE arrests tend to focus on the alleged connection between the detainees and Al-Islah, a UAE Brotherhood chapter established in 1974. There appears to be a presumption that the UAE’s Brotherhood investigation is focused chiefly if not solely on Al-Islah.

Largely absent from Washington analyses published thus far is mention of an organization called the Islamic Ummah Party (Hizb al-Ummah al-Islami) founded last year by an Al-Islah co-founder and linked to groups of the same name in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Ummah party members have also been arrested by the UAE government, and their own statements and activities suggest why they and other Brotherhood offshoots have so gravely vexed Abu Dhabi.

On March 5, 2013, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa became the first provincial capital to fall under rebel control in the ongoing civil war. It fell primarily into the hands of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate now designated a terrorist group by the United States and United Nations.

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 armed forces and co-founder of the Al-Ummah Party, Muhammad al-Abduli. He had previously been jailed by the UAE on suspicion of trying to recruit soldiers to join the Brotherhood.

Various Islamist publications report that Abduli had arrived in Turkey with other UAE nationals a few months before a bullet claimed his life. There he helped establish a military training camp, subsequently named the “Abduli Camp” in his memory, for anyone who wished to fight the Assad regime. As word of Abduli’s “martyrdom” later spread, other UAE nationals boasted of their connection to him − notably, the current head of the UAE’s Al-Ummah Party, Hassan al-Duqqi, who Tweeted a photograph of the two posing together inside Syria. (Duqqi, now a fugitive from the UAE, is reportedly living in Turkey.)

Most UAE nationals wish for the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and would support the idea of fighting alongside the rebels in principle. But the Al-Ummah Party’s senior leadership has signaled that its agenda for violent action transcends the borders of Syria, as confirmed by Muhammad bin Sa’d al-Mufarrih, leader of the Saudi branch, during a March visit to the country.

In addition to Tweeting about a meeting he had held with a commander of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, on March 31 he 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.’)” In the discourse of the Al-Ummah party, as with other Islamist groups, the “Arabian peninsula” is understood to mean Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The quote at the end is part of an oral tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, where Muhammad foresees an army of 12,000 arising from Arabia to lead the Muslim world in reestablishing the caliphate. In the Al-Ummah party discourse, as with other Islamist groups, “Arabian peninsula” is understood to mean Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

A recent study of foreign fighters in Syria estimated the total number as of June at 7,500 at most, casting serious doubt on Mufarrih’s claim that 12,000 hail from the Gulf alone. But if only as a statement of aspiration, Mufarrih’s words carry weight in light of the party’s operational achievements: To date, the Ummah party’s leadership has co-founded and co-funded two Islamist brigades in Syria, bringing together fighters from the Gulf, Libya, Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere.

Both the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham (“Free Men of the Levant”) and Liwaa al-Ummah (“Banner of the Nation”) were established with financial support from the Kuwaiti founder of all three Gulf branches of the Ummah party, 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: The brigade’s Twitter feed largely re-Tweets statements by the leaders of the Al-Ummah party in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its Facebook page routinely sings their praises.

Based on publicly available source materials alone, there is reasonable cause for concern that UAE and other Gulf Brotherhood elements have been arming and training for a campaign of violence in the Gulf.

This evidence appears to counter U.S. government, think tank and human rights group assessments of the UAE Brotherhood noted earlier, which follow the conventional view that the movement seeks power through non-violent change. Indeed, both the UAE’s longstanding Brotherhood franchise Al-Islah and its newly minted offshoot, the Ummah party, claim to support a peaceful rotation of power. Only two years ago, moreover, the fall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia through civil demonstrations were thought to have profoundly repudiated the terrorist tactics of Al-Qaeda. What would drive Brotherhood activists in the UAE or elsewhere in the Gulf, to train for combat?

Some answers may be found by examining the movement’s formative years when the slain UAE colonel Abduli and present-day Ummah Party chief Al-Duqqi came of age. They were members of Al-Islah, the Brotherhood franchise established in 1974 with the blessing of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. As in nearly every Arab monarchy, it was formed by locals in collaboration with hardened Egyptian Brotherhood activists fleeing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, and the state welcomed its activities as a counterweight to revolutionary pan-Arabism.

Members received influential government posts − two served as ministers − and for years at a time dominated the educational system and significantly influenced young people. By some accounts, the long honeymoon between the Brotherhood and the state lasted until as late as 2003, when the government moved 170 of the group’s members from the education ministry to other, less significant functions. It was the first in a series of large reshufflings designed to weaken the Brotherhood without resorting to a crackdown.

In the long years when it behaved with near-impunity, Al-Islah betrayed a penchant for an especially radical form of the Brotherhood’s ideology. That is, while other Brotherhood franchises including Egypt’s were busy purging jihadists from their ranks, the UAE branch grew increasingly close to them. In 1994, for example, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited the UAE with evidence that Al-Islah members had been funneling monies to Egypt’s Al-Gihad, the terrorist group once led by Ayman al-Zawahiri that subsequently merged with Al-Qaeda.

In response, then-UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan ordered an investigation, confirmed the allegation and called on Al-Islah to cease its involvement with groups outside the UAE. But Al-Islah petitioned the ruler of the neighboring emirate of Dubai to reinvestigate the matter. He did so, reached a different conclusion and exonerated the group. It was neither the first nor the last time Al-Islah would exploit differences among the emirates in order to survive and thrive in the country.

Al-Islah members’ motivation to provide financial support to Egypt’s Al-Gihad in the 1990s may be understood through their writings. Editorials in the movement’s mouthpiece, Majallat al-Islah (“Al-Islah Magazine”), indicate that its ideological worldview had at least as much in common with Egyptian jihadist splinter groups like Al-Gihad and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya as with their parent movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood.

For example, while Egyptian jihadists were killing Western tourists in the 1990s, the UAE publication ran a string of editorials decrying the presence of tourists in the UAE, as well as foreign guest workers, the majority of the country’s population. Calling foreign guest workers a “fifth column,” one editorial demanded that they convert to Islam as a condition for residing in the country. There were occasional incidents, as well, in which a mosque preacher affiliated with Al-Islah declared a minister of the UAE government an “infidel,” a practice one found more commonly among militants in Egypt. Such eruptions were generally quelled by the group leadership.

The pro-jihadist strain was only one point of view among several expressed by members of Al-Islah. But it appears to have grown in popularity over time, largely due to the efforts of Hassan al-Duqqi, the Islah co-founder who now heads the Ummah party and surfaced in Syria earlier this year. Duqqi’s 2003 book, Malamih (“Features”), presents an intellectual foundation for Islamist activism in the 21st century. It calls for reconciling the global agenda of Salafi jihadism with Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb’s focus on targeting Arab regimes and transforming their countries one at a time.

In essence, Malamih presents the same argument Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made in bringing together the groups that now form Al-Qaeda. It is also consistent with the teachings of Hakim al-Mutayri, the Kuwaiti founder of the Ummah party, and his Saudi counterpart, Muhammad bin Sa’d al-Mufarrih.

Following the publication of his book, Duqqi was removed from the leadership of Al-Islah and subsequently jailed by the UAE government. From exile in Turkey, Duqqi has voiced support for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and denounced the UAE government’s assistance to the Western campaign to route Al-Qaeda from northern Mali. In interviews on Arabic satellite television, he routinely refers to the UAE government as a mere contrivance of the West, bearing no legitimacy.

How much overlap remains between his party, Al-Ummah, and the parent group, Al-Islah, would appear to be an important question for the UAE government. So is the question of who within the security sector and armed forces, like the lieutenant colonel Abduli, has joined Al-Ummah. Moreover, two more UAE combatants besides Abduli have been reported killed thus far in Syria.

The nexus of the UAE Brotherhood and armed factions in Syria provides one example among many non-Syrian Islamists who have come to the country and joined the battle. The study of foreign fighters in Syria that estimated their number as high as 7,500 identifies 280 reported killed as of May 30. The largest number came from North Africa (mainly Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt), followed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and then other countries in the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine).

Whereas the Ummah party leader Al-Mufarrih merely announced the Gulf fighters’ intention to depart Syria and “liberate” their home countries, foreign fighters from elsewhere have already begun to act. Syrian neighbors Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey all report having thwarted attacks by returnees from Syria, a phenomenon widely described as “spillover” from the civil war.

But other botched attempts have been reported farther afield, in Tunisia, Belgium and Spain. The spread of countries targeted thus far indicates that neither the “Arab spring” states nor the region’s enduring autocracies are immune to the threat, and neither is the West. Fighters from 14 European countries have also been identified on Syrian soil, and Swedish intelligence director John Peste recently noted that some embrace “al-Qaeda-inspired” ideologies and can be “rarely stop[ped]” from returning home.

Yet the Ummah party is a unique example of a Brotherhood franchise claiming organizational credit for attacks in Syria. Even the Syrian Brotherhood has avoided doing so, presumably out of concern to build and maintain the image of a group committed to nonviolent democratic change. The party leadership’s brazen threat to take the fight back to the Gulf and the substantial ideological overlap between it and Al-Qaeda demonstrate a new mutation of the Brotherhood that does not fit into the movement’s post-“Arab spring” paradigm as articulated over the past two years.

The extent of the threat posed by the UAE, Kuwaiti and Saudi Ummah parties back home is a function of the size of the organizations, the depth of their penetration into government and the security sector, the success or failure of Gulf states in containing them and the degree of sympathy for the groups among the broader population.

From a military standpoint, they can threaten government installations, local and foreign businesses, Arab and Western tourism and, by extension, the Gulf oil economies and consumers. From a political standpoint, they can widen the gap between state and society in any effort at systemic political and social reform.

While measuring these factors is difficult, the movement clearly has the wind at its back. The recent ouster of Egyptian president and Brotherhood stalwart Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has caused legions of Islamists region-wide to despair of democratic political participation, a strategy they had initially viewed with skepticism.

A Morsi supporter put it well in a recent appearance on the Islamist satellite network Al-Yaqin: “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 nearly a million hits and counting on YouTube, the speaker appears to have hit a nerve, and the time is ripe for Ummah party activists to tap into these sentiments.

As to the unique situation in the UAE, it is surely appropriate for American policymakers and rights groups to voice concern about the country’s opaque judiciary proceedings in prosecuting alleged Brotherhood members. But it also behooves the United States to more thoroughly investigate the UAE Brotherhood on its own and begin to grapple with the complex challenges it and its counterparts evidently pose.

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