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Blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood Could Complicate US Diplomacy

Designating Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization could pit the United States against new potential enemies

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FILE - Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood set things aflame to block a street during clashes with Egyptian forces following their protest against the government in Cairo's Matariya district, Egypt, June 30, 2015. VOA
 Designating Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization could pit the United States against new potential enemies in the Muslim world, experts say.

Analysts argue the designation could hamper U.S. Middle East diplomacy and efforts to promote democratic change in the region.

“For America to write off this important part of politics in the Middle East is really to hobble any kind of intellectual debate and the freedom of American diplomats to operate in this region,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“America is going to throw a major spanner [wrench] into the works of any kind of democratic and political evolution in the Middle East if it does this,” he told VOA.

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FILE – President Donald Trump meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in the Oval Office of the White House, April 9, 2019. VOA

The reaction came after the White House recently said President Donald Trump is mulling over designating Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.

“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email to reporters.

Egypt’s efforts

The U.S. announcement came nearly three weeks after a visit by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to the White House.

El-Sissi, who toppled former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and thrown Morsi and many of the group’s leaders in jail.

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Morsi was the first Muslim Brotherhood president who came to power after winning the 2012 presidential elections in Egypt. Morsi had led the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But since assuming power, el-Sissi has been urging U.S. officials to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Sunni powers in the Middle East, also have been lobbying Washington to designate the Islamist group.

‘Neo-conservative team’

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FILE – Supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi chant slogans and raise an image of him after the Muslim Brotherhood called on its supporters to take to the streets on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 25, 2016. VOA

During the first weeks of his administration in 2017, Trump had considered the designation but then dropped the idea.

The current U.S. national security team, however, has been in favor of targeting Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, some analysts charge.

“President Trump has got this new national security team with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton. This is a much more neo-conservative crowd than the first year of Trump’s [presidency],” Mideast expert Landis said.

“So it’s possible that they could actually entertain the idea of supporting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in sanctioning the Muslim Brotherhood and designating them,” he added.

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Fawzi Soufiane, a Tunisia-based expert on Islamist movements, says there are more radical groups in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East that the U.S. should consider targeting.

“For example, there are Salafis in Egypt who are much more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. So clearly any potential designation of the Muslim Brotherhood won’t be effective in terms of combating terrorism in the Middle East,” he told VOA.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the least violent group when it comes to the political spectrum of Islamist parties,” Soufiane said.

Extremist ideology

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FILE – Muslim Brotherhood members are seen behind bars during a court session in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 2, 2018. VOA

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt, is a social, religious and political organization that promotes a governance system run by Islamic law.

The Sunni Muslim group has dozens of affiliates across the Muslim world. Although it has used violence to achieve its political objectives in the past, the group currently eschews such actions.

But some experts believe that the Islamist group continues to promote its agendas through violence by aligning itself with more extremist organizations.

The Muslim Brotherhood “has been funding and supporting extremist groups through an extensive network of humanitarian and political organizations in Syria, Libya and elsewhere,” said Majdi al-Daqaq, editor-in-chief of October magazine, a pro-government publication in Cairo.

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“Even if we assumed that Muslim Brotherhood is not involved in armed violence, it is still active in promoting extremist political ideology throughout the region,” he told VOA in a phone interview.

Al-Daqaq added that the Muslim Brotherhood “also has direct ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas,” which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

Financial networks

Designating Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement a foreign terrorist organization would allow Washington to impose sanctions on any individual or group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Experts say targeting the group’s financial networks overseas could undermine its activities in the Middle East.

“If the U.S. could target the Muslim Brotherhood leadership by sanctioning powerful individuals who have been working with the organization in Middle East, Europe and North America, then the group would be harmed significantly,” said Shafeeq Mamdouh, a political commentator based in Alexandria, Egypt.

“This is a group that heavily relies on funding and donations from Muslim groups in and outside the Middle East. So their financial transactions abroad need to be disrupted,” he added.

What next

If the White House decides to label the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, it must prove that the group engages in terrorist activity against the U.S. or its interests.

The secretary of state then would have to consult with the attorney general and the treasury secretary before making the designation official.

U.S. Congress would have seven days to review the designation, choosing either to block or allow it. (VOA)

Next Story

Combine US, S. Korean Missile Systems to Boost Defense Against North Korea, Say Experts

South Korea should integrate its missile defense system with that of the U.S. to maximize the combined capabilities

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People watch a TV showing a news program reporting North Korea's missile launch, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 5, 2019. VOA

South Korea should integrate its missile defense system with that of the U.S. to maximize the combined capabilities to counter a potential incoming flight of North Korea’s missiles across the border, experts said in the wake of Pyongyang’s two missile launches in early May.

South Korea’s missile defense system and the U.S. antimissile defense system deployed in South Korea are coordinated but operate independently.

“The whole system would work better if it was fully integrated, if it was a completely combined operation,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.

Why not integrate systems?

The lack of integration is rooted in regional history. The South Korean government, whether it was conservative or liberal, never merged its system with the U.S. system for political reasons, in part, because integrating it would mean joining the U.S. missile defense alliance in the region that includes Japan, South Korea’s colonial adversary toward which South Korea’s public sentiment has been historically antagonistic, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. research center.

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FILE – President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Northeast Asia Security dinner at the US Consulate General in Hamburg, Germany, July 6, 2017. VOA

Streamlining the command and control of the two missile defense systems with autonomous command and control would cut the time needed to analyze data, share information, and cue the proper system for targeting and intercepting an incoming missile, according to David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

On May 17, the Pentagon announced the U.S. had approved a $314 million sale of air defense missiles to South Korea.

South Korea’s missile defense system, termed the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), includes Aegis and Patriot systems, and is designed to protect South Korea from missiles that fly at different altitudes and distance by detecting, tracking and intercepting incoming missiles in the air. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which currently falls under the U.S. missile defense system, is also deployed in South Korea.

Aegis, a sea-based missile defense system, and THAAD are area defense weapons that have the capabilities to defend wide areas against missiles that fly high altitudes. And, the Patriot system, known as pointed defense weapons, can intercept missiles directed against smaller areas such as air base, according to Maxwell.

No perfect defense

But they don’t provide a perfect defense that prevents missiles from getting through, he added.

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“There’s no impenetrable shield,” Maxwell said. “There [is] always going to be a gap, a seam, a weakness, that the enemy is always trying to exploit and defenders are always trying to fix and find a better way. This is constantly a game of where capabilities continue to evolve.”

This was part of what was happening when North Korea tested a new missile on May 4 that is considered to be similar to the Russian Iskander, a nuclear-capable missile that flies lower than the short-range ballistic missiles North Korea tested before.

“A ballistic missile leaves the earth’s atmosphere and glides back down,” Bechtol said. “This [test] missile does not, as far as I can tell, leave the Earth’s atmosphere. It operates more like a cruise missile than a ballistic missile.”

A cruise missile flies on a relatively straight line and at a lower altitude than a ballistic missile, which arcs up before curving down toward a target.

Russian-like missile poses challenges

Experts said if the new missile is modeled after the Iskander, it could pose multiple challenges and could exploit gaps in the existing missile-defense coverage in South Korea.

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Iskander Trajectory Options. VOA

The new missile’s “flattened flight path” toward a target “makes it difficult to intercept” with current defense systems, said Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The North Korean version of the Iskander does not fly higher than 50 kilometers and can travel a ground distance as far as 280 kilometers, according to Elleman.

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But THAAD and the Aegis SM-3 interceptor operate at an altitude above 50 kilometers, and the Patriot system’s effective intercepting range is at an altitude of about 25 to 30 kilometers with the Patriot variant PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor extending its flight to an altitude of about 40 kilometers.

That leaves “a gap in interceptor coverage” of at least 10 kilometers between the missile defense systems that operate at roughly 40 to 50 kilometers, said Ellemen. “The Iskander spends most of its flight path in this gap, making it difficult to intercept.”

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THAAD vs. DPRK Iskander. VOA

 

The Iskander can fly at a high speed, presenting another challenge for the current missile defense system.

Bennett said, “The Iskander flies perhaps 20-25 percent faster than the Scud,” a series of tactical ballistic missiles that could travel five times the speed of sound, potentially capable of reaching South Korea in about five minutes, Bennett said.

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“THAAD and the SM-3 on the Aegis [equipped] ships should be able to handle this speed. [But] the Iskander flies low, [a] potential challenge for THAAD and the SM-3,” he added.

Most accurate North Korean missile

The Iskander can be mounted on mobile launch platforms, meaning it can be moved and fired quickly.

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FILE – This undated file photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry official website Sept. 19, 2017, shows a Russian Iskander-K missile launched during a military exercise at a training ground at the Luzhsky Range, near St. Petersburg, Russia. VOA

“It’s a solid fuel missile,” Bechtol said, explaining that the fuel can be loaded ahead of launch “and moved much more quickly than liquid-fuel missiles.” The latter need fueling just before launch.

The Iskander’s maneuverability also makes it difficult for THAAD, Aegis SM-3, and the Patriot system to intercept.

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“The Iskander has fins mounted at the back of the missile, which allow it to maneuver during the entire flight,” Ellemen explained. “This makes it much more difficult to predict an intercept location and launches the interceptor on the optimal path for an engagement resulting in destruction of the threat.”

Bechtol said, “It would be the most accurate missile the North Koreans have ever had, so accurate that they could actually fire out … [and] target barracks, flight lines for aircraft, headquarter buildings.”

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THAAD vs. DPRK Iskander. VOA

With the missile test, “the North Koreans are showing us that they have a missile [with which] they can accurately target Osan Air Base or Camp Humphreys in a very real, in a very dangerous way,” Bechtol said, citing American installations in South Korea.

“They were able to keep in accordance with the agreement they made with [President Donald] Trump, and at the same time, threaten the United States and South Korea in a very compelling way,” he added.

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When the Pyongyang government began talks with Washington last year, it pledged to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Complicated political situation

Merging South Korean and U.S. missile defense systems could be hampered by the political situation in South Korea, according to Maxwell. Public attitudes have changed little since 2017, when hundreds of South Korean citizens protested the installation of THAAD at a U.S. military south of Seoul.

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FILE – People scuffle with riot police during a protest opposing the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seongju, South Korea, Sept. 7, 2017. VOA

“I just don’t see the political will for that in South Korea among majority of the people or the current rule and government,” Maxwell said.

Bennett said a North Korean missile that slipped under defense systems could devastate the peninsula, depending on the type of warhead it carried, “… which in theory could be conventional, nuclear or chemical,” he said. “So the defense would turn to passive defense: protecting people in shelters with masks and protective clothing.”

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According to Maxwell, a variant of the Patriot interceptor, the PACT 3 Guidance Enhanced Missile (GEM-T) under the U.S. missile defense system in South Korea is better able “to defeat tactical ballistic missiles and aircraft and cruise missiles” and could potentially intercept the new kind of missile North Korea tested. (VOA)