At the end of February, in Istanbul, the Palestinians Abroad Conference convened with the purported goal of promoting global support for the Palestinians. Its actual purpose was to bolster the status of Hamas in the international arena.
Many of the organizers of the conference, which was attended by thousands of Arabs and Palestinians from all over the world, are of Palestinian origin. But to those who closely followed what happened in Istanbul, it became clear that many of the organizers and attendees had something else in common: they are known to have been members — for decades — of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated networks all over Europe.
This was not the first conference of its kind. Many like it have taken place in recent years. Many of the same faces are present — including current and past members of the Muslim Brotherhood, at a more or less official level, and current and past members of Hamas.
Their shared goal is to promote international legitimacy for Hamas — in Europe, Africa, the Middle East (of course) and even in Latin America — in a bid to challenge the PLO’s international standing as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Hamas, in this way, is slowly but surely establishing a global infrastructure of supporters who are providing not only encouragement and legitimacy, but also quite a bit of financial assistance.
Tracing the outlines of this infrastructure lends some surprising insights. For example, Britain turns out to be hosting more of this semi-official activity by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood than any other country in Europe.
One almost quintessential example of such activity under innocent-seeming cover is the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign.
“This group was established in 2003 in Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Ehud Rosen, an expert on political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood who assisted Steven Merley, another expert, in writing a comprehensive study on the topic. Merley started a website, Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch, which reports on Muslim Brotherhood activity all over the world.
“It was initiated by two former members of al-Qaeda, both from Saudi Arabia, who tried to brand the new organization as ‘non-violent,’” Rosen said. “The organization was rebooted in Qatar in 2005 [following the Saudi government’s objections to hosting it on Saudi soil]. Its founding group from 2005 includes high-ranking Hamas officials, including political leader Khaled Mashaal, alongside representatives of other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s global organization, Salafists and Salafi jihadists.
“The group has held many conferences and issued fatwas against the West, such as against France after it began military action in Mali.”
The Campaign began focusing on Gaza in 2009, during and after Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military campaign aimed at stopping rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. At a conference held in February 2009, the group decided to turn Gaza into a new front for jihad under the auspices of the “Istanbul Declaration.” The declaration, signed by 90 Muslim clerics from all over the world, including members of Hamas, stated that the Palestinian Authority was not the representative of the Palestinian people, while the “elected government of Hamas,” was in fact the legitimate representative.
The statement attacked the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative — a proposal that offers normalization of ties between Arab countries and Israel in exchange for Israel pulling out of territories claimed by Palestinians — calling it nothing less than “a proven betrayal of the Islamic Nation and the Palestinian cause, and a blatant betrayal of the Palestinian people.”
“This [Global Anti-Aggression Campaign] group, like some other Muslim groups throughout Europe, does not call itself the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ or a supporter of Hamas. These are networks of groups scattered over nearly the entire world. For their part, Muslim Brotherhood leaders claim their movement is active in 80 countries, but since September 11, 2001, and even before, the groups that are identified with [the Brotherhood] have denied any connection,” Rosen said.
“Take another example: FIOE, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe,” he said. “Thirty-seven different groups in different countries on the continent operate under that organization, and over the years have created an image for themselves as ‘the legitimate representatives’ — the Islamic mainstream. The group is known as IGD in Germany and UOIF in France. The same thing is going on in Scandinavia and almost everywhere.”
These networks operate according to the long-established model of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In each country there is a network of civil society organizations — in other words, dawa, a word in Arabic meaning proselytizing or preaching of Islam. These organizations are run by well-known figures who head madrasas, or Muslim schools; mosques; charitable organizations that raise money not only for Muslims in Europe but also for Hamas; and even student associations in every well-known university in Europe. Recently, Muslim “human rights” groups have been established that work to strengthen support for the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Many prominent figures in these groups, again, operate on British soil. Here are some examples.
• Anas Altikriti, a native of Iraq, is the son of a high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood official. His father fled Saddam Hussein’s regime to Britain. He himself was born in Iraq, but has lived in London since he was two years old. He visited the White House two years ago and met with president Barack Obama. Though he supports its policies, he says he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
• Muhammad Sawalha, of Palestinian origin, is very well known to the Israeli security establishment as one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank. He also lives in London.
• Zaher Birawi, a former Hamas operative in the Gaza Strip, was one of the spokesmen of the Mavi Marmara flotilla and has been involved in other flotillas.
• Essam Yusuf Mustafa is a former member of Hamas’s political wing, at least according to the US Treasury Department. Mustafa, one of the organizers of the latest conference in Istanbul, is on the board of trustees of another organization, Interpal, which was declared a terrorism-supporting organization by the United States as far back as 2003. Both Birawi and Mustafa live in Britain.
Mustafa was a leader of a group called the Charity Coalition (also known as the Union of Good), which raised money for Hamas in the early 2000s and gained the spiritual support of Yusuf al-Qardawi, the leading Sunni cleric and Muslim Brotherhood member. The Turkish IHH group, which was one of the organizers of the Marmara flotilla, was also part of the Charity Coalition.
There are others, in and out of Britain: Ismail Patel, head of the Friends of Al-Aqsa group; Daud Abdullah, originally from Grenada, a former member of the Muslim Council of Britain, who helps operate a news site which takes a pro-Hamas and pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance; Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian who is the CEO of the Alhiwar television station, which operates from London and is considered explicitly pro-Hamas (Zaher Birawi hosts a show on the station); Egyptian-born Ibrahim el-Zayat, currently living in Germany, who is considered a key figure in the financial dealings of these networks; and Ibrahim Munir Mustafa, also Egyptian by birth, who chairs the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and lives in London.
Rosen, who has been tracking these names for quite some time, said there is a distinction between members of the official Muslim Brotherhood, such as those who operate in Egypt, and the networks that are thought to be identified with them.
“These are in effect groups that sprang up from former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled Egypt in the 1960s and settled in Europe. These groups were founded without any direct orders [from the Brotherhood], without a centralized command structure or a prominent commander,” he explained.
“But there are definite networks here, with major nexuses, such as London or Germany. They cooperate with the official Muslim Brotherhood and with Hamas.
“Hamas’s place in the enormous organization known as the global Muslim Brotherhood is growing right now,” he said. “Hamas is the movement’s own flesh and blood, and it wants to take control of the PLO. This is why its global activity has taken on a new importance. The Palestinian organization is trying to re-invent itself, with a new platform and a supposedly more moderate direction, but they are still the same organization.
“The whole BDS issue benefits from this Islamist infrastructure and receives assistance from organizations that are identified with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Rosen. “And there is persistent talk of Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas’s political wing, replacing Ibrahim Munir as the chair of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”