John Rossomando contends in The Arab Spring Ruse: How the Muslim Brotherhood Duped Washington in Libya and Syria that United States President Barack Obama and his administration made a fatal error during the rebellions that swept the Arab world in 2011 by assuming that Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood character—the “participationists”, as some call them—coming into power via elections would weaken the cause of the violent Islamists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Rossomando begins by noting that when the Arab Spring began, “these nascent revolutions were portrayed to the public as a long-awaited awakening of democracy in the Middle East, yet the reality was more complicated.” Over time, “these rebellions were being hijacked by Islamists … especially the secretive international Islamist movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood”, but rather than shunning these forces, as had been “consistent [policy] for many years”, whether under Democratic or Republican administrations, “Under the Obama administration, that approach changed—first to cautious engagement via backchannels and finally to an open embrace.”
“The decision to engage the Muslim Brotherhood marked a historic change in American foreign policy, created a new paradigm in the Middle East, and set into motion a series of events that had catastrophic results: the Muslim Brotherhood’s resurgence, the overthrow of at least two governments, Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s transformation into the ISIS caliphate, failed governments in Syria and Iraq, millions of refugees and displaced individuals, and the resulting destabilizing migration flows.”
Rossomando deals with the Muslim Brotherhood as the font of this modern wave of Islamic militancy, the group from which “[a]ll contemporary jihadist terror groups flow”, as he puts it. The Brotherhood’s notion of a restored caliphate and how to get there have been taken on and adapted by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others, and the book shows this intellectual debt in great detail.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, “Engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood failed to liberalize the organization.” Moreover, “Lack of sobriety on the part of the Obama administration and Western European leaders—plus the Brotherhood-supporting states of Turkey and Qatar—may have contributed to the mushrooming of Islamist terrorist violence on a global scale during Obama’s time as president.”
A series of leaked emails from the Obama administration show that they were concerned to separate how they approached the Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. To do otherwise would be a policy “driven by fear”, one official said. This was mistaken, says Rossomando, assuming there were “fundamental differences … and that one of these organizations poses a national security threat and the other does not.” In truth, “While they may have different strategies and tactics, their ultimate objectives have much more in common than what separates them.”
As Rossomando notes, there was also evidence to suggest the connection was somewhat more direct: Sidney Blumenthal, an old friend of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s who ran something like a private intelligence network during her tenure, sent a series of messages to Mrs. Clinton in December 2011, sourced to the Egyptian secret service, about contacts between the Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda.
In Libya, the working relationship between the two was even more evident in the rebellion against Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, and a similar situation predominated in Syria, where many veterans of the Brotherhood revolt of the early 1980s were now leading figures in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, though some of them had moved on to other groups, including Al-Qaeda’s branch in the country, Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Al-Nusra’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani made clear that the ideological indoctrination of his troops relied partly on Brotherhood texts, notably the work of Sayyid Qutb, albeit Al-Nusra criticised the contemporary Brotherhood for its participation in elections.
The U.S. engagement with the Brotherhood in Libya became as serious political issue for domestic politics after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, which killed the American Ambassador, because, as Rossomando recounts the story, a Brotherhood-affiliated rebel militia was tasked with defending the compound and stood aside when Al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Sharia moved in.
In both Libya and Syria, the Obama administration appeared to actively disfavour the secular liberals, but as Rossomando notes—and as is true in Europe—this was often a product of circumstance, namely the divisions within the secular camp as against a well-organized, well-funded Brotherhood that was simply easier to engage and plausibly presented itself as being more popular.
Foreign funding and sheer geography helped in Syria, too: the opposition’s political arm was based in Turkey—the key staging ground—and the government there favoured the Brotherhood and was able to secure it something like a monopoly. The Syrian political opposition’s divorce from conditions inside the country became ever-more marked over time, meaning that engagement or no was an irrelevance. Within the insurgency the jihadists grew stronger.
Ironically, the nationalist rebels’ effort to push back on the jihadist presence in the insurgency led to infighting that opened space for the worst of all—ISIS. This was not the work of the jihadists alone. As Rossomando correctly points out, the Assad regime worked to foster this situation as part of its survival strategy to present the war as one between autocracy and Islamic militancy, among other things by “release[ing] Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists from Syria’s jails”.
One of the book’s strengths in describing what happened with the Syrian political opposition is Rossomando’s original research, tracking down and interviewing those involved, notably Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador in Damascus in the crucial period. There are dangers with this methodology of taking evidence from those directly involved, of course: while they have unique insights, they also have axes to grind. Rossomando recognises this, pointing out at the end of the book that “foreign policy experts … need to verify everything they are told by activists, self-described experts, and others who may have an interest”.
An important section of the book sees Rossomando document the way in which the Brotherhood infrastructure in the West, some of it directed by the Brotherhood’s Qatar-based Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was mobilized, through lobbying organizations and “charities”, to shape opinion in favour of the rebellions and the Islamist-led governments they spawned, despite the Brotherhood’s “demonstrated hostility to American values and culture, including blasphemy laws and their abusive treatment of women, the LGBTQ community, and religious minorities”.
“It is difficult to attribute or identify how successful the Muslim Brotherhood front groups were in shaping U.S. foreign policy”, Rossomando concludes, “but there is no doubt that they had unprecedented access to decisionmakers, influencers, and American media in their attempt to shape the political landscape.”