These days and weeks of bloody struggle in Egypt have implications that go far beyond the country and the region.
The conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents will determine whether an Islamic terrorist group will run Egypt.
Forgotten in all the Arab Spring cheerleading is the simple fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group. And not only is it a terrorist group but it is the single most influential Sunni Islamic terrorist group in the world, spawning entire networks of terrorist organizations; including Al Qaeda.
Egypt holds great resources and great wealth, advanced weapons and even limited nuclear capability. But beyond that it is also where the modern age of terror began, where Western ideas crossbred with the ancient Jihad of Islam to create a new strategic threat.
The Arab Spring, the Islamist Winter and the Military Summer are more than just seasons for Egypt, they are also transformative phases for the country that long stood at the crossroads of terrorism.
The road to America’s modern confrontation with Islamic terrorism began in Egypt. The World Trade Center bombing was spawned by a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Atta, the key figure in the September 11 attacks, was an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Today the Engineers Syndicate, the Brotherhood front group that Atta was a member of, is holding rallies in support of Morsi.
The Syndicate is one of many front groups that the Muslim Brotherhood uses to recruit new members. That same process takes place at most American colleges through front groups such as the Muslim Students Association; four of whose chapter presidents became high-ranking Al Qaeda members. One of whom co-founded Al Qaeda.
The clash between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is at the heart of the War on Terror. Al Qaeda may often be associated with Saudi Arabia, but its real roots lie closer to Egypt.
Before Ayman al-Zawahiri became the leader of Al Qaeda, he was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and headed up the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization spun off from the Muslim Brotherhood that eventually merged into Al Qaeda.
Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a biographical note that Ayman al-Zawahiri shared with Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s interim Emir after Bin Laden’s death was Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, maintaining the Egyptian identity of the new Al Qaeda leadership.
Zawahiri was described as the “brains” of Al Qaeda while Bin Laden was its purse and its public image. That organizational and interpersonal relationship mimics the greater one between the Muslim Brotherhood and its wealthy Gulf oil backers.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other oil kingdoms may fund terrorism, protect terrorists and fill out their ranks; they may spread the corrosion of its clerics into the West, but they aren’t its brains.
Al Qaeda after Bin Laden is more “Egyptian” and more “Brotherhood” than ever. It draws its rank and file Jihadists from the usual sources, but its orientation has shifted away from Azzam’s global Jihad against the infidels and toward the Islamic civil wars that Zawahiri had sought to fight all along.
There have been no major Al Qaeda operations launched against America. Instead Al Qaeda has reemerged as a loosely aligned group of franchises fighting to take over Muslim countries.
The strategy that emerged distinctly in Iraq, where Al Qaeda often seemed more focused on killing Shiites than on killing Americans, has exploded into full scale civil war in Syria, where Al Qaeda in Iraq is operating as the Al Nusra Front.
In Syria, Al Qaeda’s Al Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood’s brigades in the Free Syrian Army appear to also be loosely aligned, fighting toward the same objectives.
The Arab Spring helped complete the realignment of Al Qaeda’s objectives. It became what its Egyptian faction of Muslim Brotherhood activists had always wanted it to be; a force for helping them take over entire countries, rather than aimlessly bombing Western targets.
Al Qaeda’s two biggest operations took place after the Arab Spring and were carried out on a much bigger scale than September 11. In Mali and in Syria, Al Qaeda franchises attempted to capture entire countries. These operations were aligned with the regional objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood.
When Al Qaeda attempted to seize Mali, President Mohammed Morsi came out firmly against any intervention. Morsi also aggressively pushed for intervention in Syria and called for a No Fly Zone.
The second wave of attacks of September 11, a day most remembered for the assault on the Benghazi mission and the murder of Ambassador Stevens, was concentrated largely in countries and areas under the control of the Brotherhood and allied Islamists, whether it was entire countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, or cities, such as Benghazi.
In Washington and London, the politicians wanted to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was a check on its violent splinter groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian Islamic Group and even on Al Qaeda. Instead the Muslim Brotherhood was quietly working with them to advance the common Islamist objectives of imposing total Islamic rule on the region in the form of a united Caliphate.
Morsi’s regime freed Egyptian Islamic Group terrorists and even attempted to appoint an EIG leader as governor in Luxor, where memories still linger of its infamous massacre. That appointment may have been one of the tipping points that toppled the Brotherhood, but it was also a clear message that not only was the Muslim Brotherhood not disavowing its so-called splinter groups, but it was aiding them.
Washington and London may think that they are playing the Muslim Brotherhood against Al Qaeda, but they are the ones being played.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s defeat has damaged the group’s morale by hitting its sense of historical inevitability. It is a long way from being destroyed, but if it suffers a series of defeats in Egypt, Syria and beyond, it will lose members and momentum. And the Brotherhood’s loss will also be Al Qaeda’s loss.
Obama’s weakness created an opening that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda took advantage of. Now they are at the climactic moment in their great game of Jihad. Either they win here and the road to the Caliphate becomes much smoother or they lose badly and risk becoming relics of history.
It’s a crucial strategic moment that will determine whether the next bomb goes off in America or Egypt.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.