Members swore obedience to Banna, pledging iron discipline and secrecy. They were organized into tiers of membership, with some forming a covert military wing to confront the Cairo regime.
As the Ikhwan's following grew to half a million, Banna was assassinated by Egyptian officials in 1949. Five years later, after Brotherhood members fired shots at Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, thousands of Ikhwanis were imprisoned, shattering the organization. Hundreds more were jailed in Syria and Iraq. Another Brotherhood leader, Sayyid Qutb, who advocated militant jihad against nonbelievers and revolution against impure Muslim states, was hanged by Egypt in 1966. Qutb's books would later provide the philosophical underpinning for jihadists such as bin Laden as well as many Islamists in this country.
The Egyptian Ikhwan is opposed to violence against the nation's government but is still considered a terrorist front.
About This Series|
Three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has undertaken extensive efforts to root out Islamic terrorists around the world and to defend the U.S. homeland. Articles today and tomorrow are part of a series looking at the elusive nature of the threat and the problems authorities confront in battling it. Today's story examines a worldwide Islamic movement that has been linked to terrorist groups but also has produced some of the most influential and moderate Islamic institutions in the United States. Tomorrow's report looks at how a mosque that grew out of that movement fares in the world after Sept. 11. Previous parts of this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.
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Today, the Egyptian Ikhwan operates semi-openly, with some members serving in parliament. It eschews violence against the government of Hosni Mubarak, arguing that it can attain its goals by peaceful proselytizing, one wayward soul at a time. Still, Mubarak has banned the Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist front, and jailed hundreds.
Egypt remains the Brotherhood's center of gravity, with Mohammed Akef, its "Supreme Guide" in that country, considered by many to be the group's de facto leader worldwide. Akef embodies the contradictions of the movement, with statements supporting democratic elections as well as violence against Americans in Iraq.
In the 1950s, Brotherhood activists -- reeling from their suppression in Egypt, Iraq and Syria -- found a refuge in Saudi Arabia, newly awash in oil money. Thousands of Ikhwanis became teachers, lawyers and engineers there, staffing government agencies, establishing Saudi universities and banks, and rewriting curricula.
With royal family approval, Brotherhood activists also launched the largest Saudi charities, including the Muslim World League in 1963 and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth in 1973. Funded by petro dollars, they became global missionaries spreading the Saudis' austere and rigid Wahhabi school of Islam, whose adherents at times describe all non-Wahhabis as infidels.
The missionary work morphed into armed struggle in Afghanistan, where in the 1980s Saudi-financed Brotherhood activists helped repel the Soviet invasion, with support from the CIA and Pakistan. As Islamic radicalism spread with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989, many Ikhwanis laboring for the Saudis embraced worldwide jihad and were at al Qaeda's inception.
The Brotherhood began to fall out of favor with the Saudis in 1990, when the Ikhwan backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait. The Saudis slowly cut off funding.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi leaders began describing the transnational Brotherhood as the germ of al Qaeda while playing down the role of its government-backed clergy. Recently, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef repeatedly denounced the Brotherhood, saying it is guilty of "betrayal of pledges and ingratitude" and is "the source of all problems in the Islamic world."
Coming to America
In the 1960s, Brotherhood activists started arriving in the United States. Most embraced modernism and American culture, people who sympathize with them said. Many also ended a formal tie to the Cairo-based Ikhwan headquarters even as they hewed to Ikhwan principles. Among their main goals were carving out havens for Muslims, propagating Islam in America and backing Israel's destruction, said Ali Ahmed, a Saudi activist in Washington close to many Ikhwanis.
"In this country the Ikhwan is mostly not a formal membership organization but a set of ideas people subscribe to," Ahmed said. "A lot of Brotherhood people who came here became more moderate and interested in democracy, while others became more radical."
A U.S. official familiar with federal investigations of former Brotherhood members said some developed "a disciplined strategy, specific goals" to act on their plan to convert Americans, starting with U.S. military personnel, prison inmates and black people.
Many Brotherhood leaders advocate patience in promoting their goals. In a 1995 speech to an Islamic conference in Ohio, a top Brotherhood official, Youssef Qaradawi, said victory will come through dawah -- Islamic renewal and outreach -- according to a transcript provided by the Investigative Project, a Washington terrorism research group. "Conquest through dawah, that is what we hope for," said Qaradawi, an influential Qatari imam who pens some of the religious edicts justifying Hamas suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. "We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America, not through the sword but through dawah," said the imam, who has condemned the Sept. 11 attacks but is now barred from the United States.
In his speech, Qaradawi said the dawah would work through Islamic groups set up by Brotherhood supporters in this country. He praised supporters who were jailed by Arab governments in 1950s and then came to the United States to "fight the seculars and the Westernized" by founding this country's leading Islamic groups.