Ammar Ali Hasan, Novelist and researcher in political sociology
Before the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, the Arab and Muslim world did not have associations or organizations working outside the realm of state authority — except those working for charity groups or religious education. Official religious institutions carried out violence in the name of religion and according to their interpretation of state law.
The establishment of the MB opened the door to political Islamist groups which clashed with the state, as well as society. Some of these groups drifted towards extremism, while others were extremist from the very beginning. All of these groups, however, espoused violence, whether it was symbolic, verbal or material.
Before spreading to the world, political Islam was born in Egypt where it was able to gain prominence and influence. At the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt was a hub for intellectual civil movements which believed in the separation of religion and state. Therefore, Islamists viewed these secularists as a threat to their goal of an Islamic state.
To understand modern extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, one must have a deep understanding of what was happening in Egypt during this time. Thousands of books, articles and studies have tackled the topic of political Islamist groups in Egypt. However, many of these writings are filled with prejudices and biases of the author because it is based on his/her interpretation of events. To truly understand the subject matter, one must go directly to the source and read the literature written by the leaders of these groups or those who were responsible for issuing fatwas (religious edicts). It is rare to find an author who actually read the memos of trial sessions of these organizations or transcripts from investigations conducted by prosecutors with their members. These writers almost never engage directly with a group member to ask them about the inner-workings of their group, their ideas, their relationship with their leaders, their perception of Muslims who are not members of their group, their view of non-Muslims in Egypt and in the rest of the world or their attitude towards state authorities.
This why Mokhtar Noah’s book “Encyclopedia of Violence in Armed Islamic Movements: 50 Years of Blood” is so important. Not only did Noah collect judicial investigations with members of several extremist and terrorist organizations, but he was able to astutely put them in their proper socio-political context.
Noah’s credibility was shored up by the fact that he is a lawyer with access to these investigations and also that he, himself, was a member of a faction of the MB. Noah, however, largely rid himself of the MB’s rigid ideas. He regularly clashed with hardline groups committed to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb — a leading member of the MB during the 50s and 60s who inspired the creation of violent offshoot groups. Instead, he gravitated towards the ideas of Umar al-Tilmisani — the third General Guide of the MB who headed the group during a period of cooperation with the state in the 70s and 80s. By the time the MB came to power in Egypt in 2012 with the election of Mohamad Mursi as president, Noah firmly stood against them and supported their overthrow.
Developments related to the MB were widely covered in the press as they unfolded during the 70s and 80s, but what was written did not show the full picture, which is why both researchers and the general public formed a skewed view of the group. The writings lacked details of what went on during interrogation sessions which revealed the true nature of the group — their ideas, plans and objectives. Indeed, much of what was published was limited to what the security services allowed to be revealed. This inevitably weakened their credibility, to which extremist groups capitalized on in order to perpetuate a sinister image of the state to the public.
The following are some violent MB offshoot groups that the author highlights:
Islamic Liberation Organization
In 1974, an armed group called the Islamic Liberation Organization led by Saleh Sariya attacked the Military Technical College in Cairo killing several soldiers. The organization was divided into small groups spread across several governorates. The organization was based on the ideas of its founder as outlined in the book entitled “The Message of Faith” which adopts violent jihad (struggle) as a means to establish an Islamic state. This group opposed the state and those who defended it, dismissing them as infidels. The group also plotted to attack parliament and the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union — which was the ruling party at the time — in parallel to the attack on the military college. However, the attacks were aborted after two members of the group reported the plan to authorities. The attackers were arrested and sentenced to death. Later, President Anwar Sadat commuted the sentences to life imprisonment — some of the attackers were eventually acquitted and released from jail.
Al-Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Migration) was the name given by the media and security services to the so-called Jama’at al-Muslimin (Muslim Society). The group was founded by Shukri Mustafa, a MB member who, after spending time in prison, adopted radical ideas. The group exiled themselves to one of Cairo’s remote neighborhoods and underwent weapons training in the desert. Its plan was to gain strength and carry out an attack on security forces. In 1977, its members kidnapped the Minsiter of Awqaf, Sheikh Husayn al-Dhahabi, and killed him. This led to the arrest of its members and the execution of its leader.
Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) was mainly concentrated in Upper Egypt. Interestingly enough, the state had a role in its founding during the 70s as they believed it could be useful tool to contain the leftists. The group carried out an attack on the Asyut Security Directorate following the assassination of Sadat on October 6, 1981, killing more than 100 people. Its leaders and many of its members were tried and sentenced to varying prison terms. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, however, remained active in the 80s and 90s. In 1997, the group launched the so-called “Cessation of Violence Initiative” after eight years of bloody conflict between members of the group and Egyptian security forces. This initiative led to a dialogue that ended with the release of the group’s leaders.
The Islamic Jihad was based in Cairo and the Nile Delta governorates. Some of its members were involved in the Sadat assassination. The organization’s ideology was based on the book titled Al-Faridah al-Ghaibah (The Neglected Duty) by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj. The organization’s key leaders were arrested — some were sentenced to death and others to life imprisonment.
The book also covers smaller violent groups such as al-Samawy and the Al-Shawkyoun and some individuals who assassinated political figures like Rifaat al-Mahjoub, the speaker of the Egyptian parliament in 1990 and Attorney General Hisham Barakat in 2015. In addition, these groups were implicated in the killing of several police chiefs and failed assassination attempts on a number of interior ministers, journalists and writers. There was even an attempt on the life of renowned Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
One can argue that the author of the encyclopedia is like the “black box” of these groups. He has shed light on their innermost thoughts and plots, supported by documents which varied from written letters, transcripts of hearings, investigations, testimonies and confessions of some of those who wanted to repent and renounce terrorism. Thus, he provides researchers, observers and security experts with a critical resource to learn about the true nature of these extremist organizations.
An in-depth reading of this encyclopedia delivers valuable observations and conclusions, which can be outlined as follows:
First, investigations show that many cadres of these organizations are highly arrogant — which stems from their belief in the inevitability of their eventual victory. At first glance — once they appear before the investigator — they have a feeling that they are “the small group that will inevitably overcome the big one” and they act on that basis, as evident in their confident talk of having the absolute truth, that they believe in Allah, and that He is with them and that the prosecutors, as well as the police — the agents of the tyrant — must be looked down on and dealt with contempt.
Second, the levels of loyalty differed among members. While some were extremely loyal to the ideology, the group and its leader, others showed hesitation once they were arrested or after being imprisoned for a certain period.
Third, the security services were able to penetrate all extremist organizations by planting agents inside them or turning existing members into moles. Some group members even voluntarily approached security agents to inform them about the group’s activities. These were usually peripheral members who were involved in logistics, but were not fully committed to the organization.
Fourth, most organizations were able to hide part of their activity from security services despite the above-mentioned penetration. This was due to the existence of multiple cluster cells within these organizations which was discovered during investigations when some members admitted to hearing about a prominent leader without once meeting them. Such ambiguity was compounded by the fact that some of the leaders had noms de guerre.
Fifth, security forces severely tortured members of these organizations during investigations. Some members testified about this when they appeared before the court and some have brought cases against certain police officers. Egypt’s authorities responded to these incidents in the early 1980s, bringing dozens of officers to trial. Although all officers were acquitte, the procedure itself was, at the time, a significant development in the state’s handling of torture cases compared to the 1960s.
Sixth, the defense of those accused from extremist and terrorist organizations was not limited to lawyers affiliated to the “Islamic Movement”, but the majority were affiliated to liberal, right-wing, communist, leftist, Nasserist and nationalist movements and some lawyers were even Christians. The motive was to defend “human rights” and oppose the extracting of confessions under torture.
Throughout President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Islamists benefited from the human rights movement in which liberals and leftists helped defend them. Lawyers defended the right of any member who committed violence against the state or society to exist, have political representation and fair civil trials.
However, the Islamist movement did not reciprocate the same level of understanding towards liberals. In fact, the Islamists dismissed the liberals as infidels and demonized them. This disdain was made evident when Sadat gave Islamists the green light to go after leftists and liberals. The Islamists severely mistreated students associated to liberal movements in universities — accusing their figures of debauchery and calling for the eradication of their ideology from society as a whole.
Seventh, after the demise or collapse of violent Islamist groups, many members simply joined new organizations with similar ideologies. New groups are quick to snatch up these veterans because of their operational experience.
Eighth, ideas put forward by leaders of these organizations are accumulated and developed. For example, the idea of isolation and exile advocated by Yahya Hashem — a former Egyptian judiciary official — was further developed by Shukri Mustafa, the leader of al-Takfir wa’l Hijra.
Ninth, many of the organizations that are deeply mired in extremism, militancy and ideas that justify bearing arms, were born in the darkness of prisons. Some of those who went to prison for being affiliated with the MB after the second clash with President Gamal Abdel Nasser came out with more radical ideas, especially since the MB itself had been influenced by the al-Takfiri ideas of Sayyid Qutb.
Tenth, a more radical approach was adopted by members outside prisons, who had an illusion attributing the MB’s break-up to the hostility to Islam itself. Some of those who joined more radical organizations in the early 1970s attributed their actions to; what happened to the MB.
Commenting on this argument, Noah says: “One of the participants in the Technical Military College events told me that the psychological stress had reached its peak due to the media behavior against the Islamic idea… He also told me how the 1965 meeting between Muslim Brotherhood members and journalists on Egyptian television brought him to the point of crying, which led him to adopt extremist ideology in the early 1970s”. Some believed that there was no hope of victory for what they considered ‘Islamic reform’ except through armed jihad.
Eleventh, the majority of young people belonging to “political Islam” operated between 1965 and 1974 without a leader/example, idea or planning. Thus, they went into various directions — some chose Salafism while others chose the MB. All of them had pent-up violent energy which initially targeted Sufi shrines. They later formed small violent organizations that carried out failed terrorist operations, including those advocating for a guerrilla war against the authorities.
Twelfth, the experience of these organizations demonstrates that it is often the most vocal members who push the organization into violence. The collapse of the group is largely due to agents who infiltrated the group.
Finally, extremist Islamist organizations have slipped into the underworld through several doors. Sometimes they have utilized secret jihadists — previously convicted criminals — to carry out certain tasks or cooperate with them on specific attacks. These criminals were motivated by financial rewards and their background in stealing, forgery and other crimes made them more capable of carrying out terrorist attacks.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.