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Cold War, Holy Warrior

Ike was pres­i­dent. Wash­ing­ton was des­per­ate for Arab allies. Enter an Islamist ide­o­logue with an invi­ta­tion to the White House and a plan for glob­al jihad.

by Robert Drey­fuss
MOTHER JONES MAGAZINE [1]

In the fall of 1953, the Oval Office was the stage for a pecu­liar encounter between Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­how­er and a young Mid­dle-East­ern fire­brand. In the mut­ed black-and-white pho­to­graph record­ing the event, the grand­fa­ther­ly, bald­ing Ike, then 62, stands gray-suit­ed, erect, his elbows bent and his fists clenched as if to add mus­cle to some force­ful point. To his left is an olive-skinned Egypt­ian in a dark suit with a neat­ly trimmed beard and close­ly cropped hair, clutch­ing a sheaf of papers behind his back, star­ing intent­ly at the pres­i­dent. He is just 27 years old, but he already has more than a decade of expe­ri­ence deep inside the vio­lent and pas­sion­ate world of mil­i­tant Islam, from Cairo to Amman to Karachi. Along­side him are mem­bers of a del­e­ga­tion of schol­ars, mul­lahs, and activists from India, Syr­ia, Yemen, Jor­dan, Turkey, and Sau­di Ara­bia, some dressed in suits, oth­ers wear­ing robes and shawls.

The pres­i­den­t’s vis­i­tor that Sep­tem­ber day was Said Ramadan, a key offi­cial and ide­o­logue of a secre­tive, under­ground fra­ter­ni­ty of Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ists known as the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. As he stood at the pres­i­den­t’s side, Ramadan appeared respectable, a wel­come guest if not a fel­low states­man.

Offi­cial­ly, Ramadan was in the Unit­ed States to attend a col­lo­qui­um on Islam­ic cul­ture at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, cospon­sored by the Library of Con­gress. It was an august event, held with much pomp and cir­cum­stance in Prince­ton’s Nas­sau Hall. Del­e­gates sat neat­ly arrayed in stiff-backed pews in the high-ceilinged Fac­ul­ty Room and attend­ed lav­ish lun­cheons, recep­tions, and gar­den par­ties in the shade of bright fall foliage.

Accord­ing to the pub­lished pro­ceed­ings, the con­fer­ence was the for­tu­itous result of the fact that a num­ber of cel­e­brat­ed per­son­ages from the Mid­dle East were vis­it­ing the coun­try. “Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1953 there hap­pened to be an unusu­al­ly large num­ber of dis­tin­guished Mus­lim schol­ars in the Unit­ed States,” the doc­u­ment notes. But the par­tic­i­pants did­n’t just “hap­pen” to have crossed the Atlantic. The col­lo­qui­um was orga­nized by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, which fund­ed it, tapped par­tic­i­pants it con­sid­ered use­ful or promis­ing, and bun­dled them off to New Jer­sey. Con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers had vis­it­ed Cairo, Bahrain, Bagh­dad, Beirut, New Del­hi, and oth­er cities to scout for par­tic­i­pants. Foot­ing the bill—to the tune of $25,000, plus addi­tion­al expens­es for trans­port­ing atten­dees from the Mid­dle East—was the Inter­na­tion­al Infor­ma­tion Admin­is­tra­tion (IIA), a branch of the State Depart­ment that had its roots in the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty; sup­ple­men­tary fund­ing was sought from U.S. air­lines and from Aram­co, the U.S. oil con­sor­tium in Sau­di Ara­bia. Like many of the par­tic­i­pants, Ramadan, a hard-edged ide­o­logue and not a schol­ar, was vis­it­ing the con­fer­ence as an all-expens­es-paid guest.

A now-declas­si­fied IIA doc­u­ment labeled “Confidential—Security Infor­ma­tion” sums up the pur­pose of the project: “On the sur­face, the con­fer­ence looks like an exer­cise in pure learn­ing. This in effect is the impres­sion desired.” The true goal, the memo notes, was to “bring togeth­er per­sons exert­ing great influ­ence in for­mu­lat­ing Mus­lim opin­ion in fields such as edu­ca­tion, sci­ence, law and phi­los­o­phy and inevitably, there­fore, on pol­i­tics…. Among the var­i­ous results expect­ed from the col­lo­qui­um are the impe­tus and direc­tion that may be giv­en to the Renais­sance move­ment with­in Islam itself.” At the time, the Unit­ed States was just begin­ning to feel its way around the Mid­dle East, and Amer­i­can ori­en­tal­ists and aca­d­e­mics were debat­ing the extent to which polit­i­cal Islam might serve as a tool for Amer­i­can influ­ence in the region.

For an orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished as a secret soci­ety, with a para­mil­i­tary arm that was respon­si­ble for assas­si­na­tions and vio­lence, to be char­ac­ter­ized as a har­bin­ger of a rebirth of Islam may seem odd. But such a view was entire­ly in char­ac­ter with U.S. pol­i­cy at a time when vir­tu­al­ly any­one who opposed com­mu­nism was viewed as a poten­tial ally. When­ev­er I inter­viewed CIA and State Depart­ment offi­cials who served in the Mid­dle East between World War II and the fall of the Sovi­et Union, they would repeat, almost like a cat­e­chism, that Islam was seen as a bar­ri­er both to Sovi­et expan­sion and to the spread of Marx­ist ide­ol­o­gy among the mass­es. “We thought of Islam as a coun­ter­weight to com­mu­nism,” says Tal­cott Seelye, an Amer­i­can diplo­mat who, while serv­ing in Jor­dan in the ear­ly 1950s, paid a vis­it to Said Ramadan. “We saw it as a mod­er­ate force, and a pos­i­tive one.” Indeed, adds Her­mann Eilts, anoth­er vet­er­an U.S. diplo­mat who was sta­tioned in Sau­di Ara­bia in the late ’40s, Amer­i­can offi­cials in Cairo had “reg­u­lar meet­ings” with Ramadan’s then-boss, Mus­lim Broth­er­hood leader Has­san al-Ban­na, “and found him per­fect­ly empa­thet­ic.”

Over the four decades after Ramadan’s vis­it to the Oval Office, the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood would become the orga­ni­za­tion­al spon­sor for gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of Islamist groups from Sau­di Ara­bia to Syr­ia, Gene­va to Lahore—and Ramadan, its chief inter­na­tion­al orga­niz­er, would turn up, Zeliglike, as an oper­a­tive in vir­tu­al­ly every man­i­fes­ta­tion of rad­i­cal polit­i­cal Islam. The hard­core Islamists of Pak­istan (see “Among the Allies,” page 44), whose acolytes cre­at­ed the Tal­iban in Afghanistan and who have pro­vid­ed suc­cor to Al Qae­da since the 1990s, mod­eled their orga­ni­za­tion on the Broth­er­hood. The regime of the aya­tol­lahs in Iran grew out of a secret soci­ety called the Devo­tees of Islam, a Broth­er­hood affil­i­ate whose leader in the 1950s was the men­tor of Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­i­ni. Hamas, the Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion, began as an offi­cial branch of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. The rad­i­cal-right Egypt­ian Islam­ic Jihad and allied groups, whose mem­bers assas­si­nat­ed Pres­i­dent Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981 and which merged with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qae­da in the 1990s, grew out of the Broth­er­hood in the 1970s. And some of the Afghan lead­ers who spear­head­ed the anti-Sovi­et jihad that was run by the CIA in the 1980s, and who helped bin Laden build the net­work of “Arab Afghans” that was Al Qaeda’s fore­run­ner, were Broth­er­hood mem­bers.

It’s no exag­ger­a­tion to say that Ramadan is the ide­o­log­i­cal grand­fa­ther of Osama bin Laden. But Ramadan, the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, and their Islamist allies might nev­er have been able to plant the seeds that sprout­ed into Al Qae­da had they not been treat­ed as U.S. allies dur­ing the Cold War and had they not received both overt and covert sup­port from Wash­ing­ton; Ramadan him­self, doc­u­ments sug­gest, was recruit­ed as an asset by the CIA.

The Unit­ed States and its part­ners in nations like Sau­di Ara­bia and Pak­istan did­n’t cre­ate rad­i­cal polit­i­cal Islam, whose the­o­log­i­cal fore­bears in the Mid­dle East can be traced back to the eighth cen­tu­ry. But con­sid­er, for a moment, an anal­o­gy with a move­ment clos­er to home. In Amer­i­ca, Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ism dates back at least to the 1840s, and right-wing evan­gel­i­cals were an inchoate force through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry. Yet until the emer­gence of the Moral Major­i­ty, the Chris­t­ian Coali­tion, and such lead­ers as Jer­ry Fal­well, Tim LaHaye, and Pat Robert­son in the late 1970s, the reli­gious right had no true polit­i­cal lead­ers and very lit­tle real-world impact. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Islam­ic right did not arise as a true polit­i­cal move­ment until the emer­gence of Ban­na, Ramadan, and their co-thinkers. By tol­er­at­ing, and in some cas­es aid­ing, the devel­op­ment of these ear­ly activists, the Unit­ed States helped give rad­i­cal Islamism the struc­ture and lead­er­ship that turned it into a glob­al polit­i­cal hur
ricane.

SAID RAMADAN was born in 1926 in Shib­in el Kom, a vil­lage about 40 miles north of Cairo in the Nile delta. He encoun­tered Ban­na and joined his move­ment when he was 14; six years lat­er, after grad­u­at­ing from Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty, he became Ban­na’s per­son­al sec­re­tary and right-hand man. A year lat­er, Ramadan was named edi­tor of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood week­ly, Al Shi­hab, and he mar­ried Ban­na’s daugh­ter, giv­ing him an impor­tant claim to lead­er­ship with­in the orga­ni­za­tion.

Ramadan became Ban­na’s rov­ing ambas­sador, amass­ing a net­work of inter­na­tion­al con­tacts. In 1945, he trav­eled to then British-con­trolled Jerusalem, where the storm clouds of war between Arabs and Jews were begin­ning to gath­er. Over the years that fol­lowed, Ramadan would spend a great deal of time shut­tling between Jerusalem, Amman, Dam­as­cus, and Beirut to build Broth­er­hood chap­ters. At the time, Pales­tine was still British-con­trolled ter­ri­to­ry, a des­per­ate­ly poor desert region inhab­it­ed by war­ring Arab and Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions. Trav­el­ing to mosques and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es and focus­ing on Mus­lim youth like him­self, Ramadan preached a mil­i­tant gospel and helped to cre­ate para­mil­i­tary groups made up of young men angry at British colo­nial­ism and Zion­ist immi­gra­tion. By 1947, there were 25 branch­es of the Broth­er­hood in Pales­tine, with between 12,000 and 20,000 mem­bers. In 1948, Ramadan helped the Broth­er­hood send Islam­ic fight­ers into bat­tle with the Jew­ish armed forces that estab­lished Israel that year. Com­pared to the armies of Egypt and Syr­ia, the Broth­er­hood’s forces were small and mil­i­tar­i­ly insignif­i­cant, but the sym­bol­ic ges­ture would enhance the group’s pres­tige for decades to come.

By the 1950s, Ramadan had become an itin­er­ant preach­er, sort of an Elmer Gantry of the Islamist move­ment. In 1949 and 1951 he trav­eled to Pak­istan, tak­ing part in the meet­ings of the World Mus­lim Con­gress in Karachi—the first transna­tion­al body con­nect­ing the world’s Islamist movements—where he flirt­ed with becom­ing sec­re­tary-gen­er­al of the orga­ni­za­tion. Pak­istan, the world’s first state orga­nized around the prin­ci­ple of Islam, was becom­ing a mag­net for fun­da­men­tal­ist ide­o­logues, and it would be a kind of sec­ond home for Ramadan. The fledg­ling gov­ern­ment gave Ramadan a broad­cast slot on the nation­al radio net­work, and Prime Min­is­ter Liaquat Ali Khan wrote the pref­ace to one of Ramadan’s books.

In Pak­istan, Ramadan worked close­ly with a young Islamist named Abul-Ala Maw­du­di, who had found­ed a Mus­lim Broth­er­hood-style move­ment called the Islam­ic Soci­ety. Just as he had recruit­ed angry young Mus­lims to take up arms in Pales­tine, so Ramadan helped Maw­du­di mold a mus­cu­lar pha­lanx of fanat­i­cal Islam­ic stu­dents into a bat­ter­ing ram against Pak­istan’s left. Known by its Urdu ini­tials as the IJT and mod­eled on Mus­solin­i’s fas­cist squadristi, the group deployed its often-armed thugs to do bat­tle with left-wing stu­dents on cam­pus. “Egg toss­ing grad­u­al­ly gave way to more seri­ous clash­es, espe­cial­ly in Karachi,” writes Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, a lead­ing expert on the move­ment. In the process, the IJT trained the gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals who seized con­trol of Pak­istan in 1977 under the far-right dic­ta­tor Gen­er­al Zia ul-Haq, spon­sored the jihad in Afghanistan, shel­tered Al Qae­da, and even today rep­re­sents a threat to Gen­er­al Per­vez Mushar­raf’s shaky regime.

In between his trips to Pak­istan, Ramadan also worked with Arab fun­da­men­tal­ists, espe­cial­ly Pales­tini­ans and Jor­da­ni­ans, to found the Islam­ic Lib­er­a­tion Par­ty, which would lat­er metas­ta­size through­out Mus­lim Cen­tral Asia. By the 1990s, the party—known by its Ara­bic name, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and increas­ing­ly sup­port­ed by Sau­di Arabia—had become an impor­tant rad­i­cal force aligned with Al Qae­da, with a pres­ence in Lon­don, Ger­many, and through­out Europe. While in Jor­dan in the ’50s, Ramadan also helped found the Jor­dan­ian branch of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, which, as in Pak­istan, became a tool for sup­press­ing the left and Arab nation­al­ists.

But Ramadan’s efforts in Pales­tine, Jor­dan, and Pak­istan were mere skir­mish­es ahead of the mid-1950s show­down in Egypt. Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Gamal Abdel Nass­er, a mer­cu­r­ial mil­i­tary offi­cer who led the coup d’e­tat that top­pled the coun­try’s dis­solute monar­chy in 1952, achieved almost leg­endary sta­tus overnight. By insist­ing on Egyp­t’s inde­pen­dence, demand­ing that Britain aban­don its mil­i­tary bases in Egypt and turn over the strate­gi­cal­ly vital Suez Canal, Nass­er emerged as a hero to mil­lions of Arabs—and he ter­ri­fied both Great Britain and the Unit­ed States, not least because his brand of nation­al­ism threat­ened U.S. and British oil inter­ests in the Gulf. (British Prime Min­is­ter Antho­ny Eden came up with a vari­ety of schemes to have Nass­er assas­si­nat­ed.)

The Broth­er­hood saw Nass­er as a hate­ful sec­u­lar­ist who had aban­doned Islam and who was too will­ing to coop­er­ate with communism—beliefs that endeared them to both Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton. In 1954, a Broth­er­hood fanat­ic fired eight shots at the Egypt­ian leader and Nass­er cracked down on the orga­ni­za­tion, arrest­ing many of its lead­ers. Ramadan, by then an unof­fi­cial for­eign min­is­ter for the Broth­er­hood, was in Syr­ia at the time, furi­ous­ly gen­er­at­ing anti-Nass­er pro­pa­gan­da. In Sep­tem­ber 1954, Nass­er stripped Ramadan of his Egypt­ian pass­port. But his exile would not last.

ONCE AGAIN, it was the Cold War that saved Ramadan and his move­ment. This time, his des­ti­na­tion was Ger­many, an ally of Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ism going back to the Nazi era. When Egypt and Syr­ia estab­lished diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with East Ger­many, West Ger­many made over­tures to both coun­tries’ opposition—and that includ­ed the Broth­er­hood. Ramadan got offi­cial West Ger­man help in flee­ing to Munich from his cer­tain death sen­tence in Egypt; a few years lat­er he set­tled in Gene­va, hub of inter­na­tion­al diplo­ma­cy and intrigue. There, in 1961, he cre­at­ed the Islam­ic Cen­ter of Gene­va, which would serve for decades as the base and orga­ni­za­tion­al head­quar­ters for the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in Europe.

As Wash­ing­ton’s ally in the strug­gle to under­mine Nass­er, Ramadan ben­e­fit­ed from a fate­ful choice made by the Unit­ed States in the 1950s and ’60s. Rather than ally­ing itself with Nasser’s brand of Arab nation­al­ism, the Unit­ed States had made per­haps its biggest mis­take in the Mid­dle East since World War II: It chose to make com­mon cause with Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s reac­tionary monar­chy. Start­ing in the 1950s, Wash­ing­ton encour­aged the king­dom to cre­ate a net­work of right-wing Islam­ic states and Islamist orga­ni­za­tions, thus help­ing to build the foun­da­tion on which Al Qae­da would ulti­mate­ly rest. Ramadan’s Islam­ic Cen­ter was a major ben­e­fi­cia­ry of the pol­i­cy, reap­ing gen­er­ous fund­ing from the king­dom.

The cen­ter soon became a place for Islamists from across the entire Mus­lim world to meet and make plans; it also act­ed as a pub­lish­ing house for Islamist lit­er­a­ture. Its pur­pose was to pro­mote the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood’s ide­ol­o­gy, accord­ing to Hani Ramadan, Said’s son, who has assumed his father’s man­tle as direc­tor of the cen­ter. “The cre­ation of the Islam­ic Cen­ter was sup­posed to real­ize my father’s desire of cre­at­ing a cen­ter from which he could spread the teach­ings of Has­san al-Ban­na,” he says, “a place where stu­dents com­ing from var­i­ous Arab coun­tries could meet and be trained in the mes­sage of Islam.” Accord­ing to Richard Labeviere, a French jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten about the Broth­er­hood’s ties to ter­ror­ism, Said Ramadan used Gene­va as the launch­ing pad for the Broth­er­hood’s inter­na­tion­al expan­sion; the group even cre­at­ed its own Swiss bank, Al Taqwa, with offices in the Swiss town of Cam­pi­one d’I­talia as well as the Bahamas. After Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, Al Taqwa was list­ed by the Unit­ed States as hav­ing sup­port­ed ter­ror­ists.

There’s anoth­er intrigu­ing ques­tion that emerges from this peri­od in Ramadan’s life: Had he been recruit­ed by the CIA dur­ing his 1953 vis­it to the Unit­ed States? Ramadan’s fam­i­ly denies that he was, but declas­si­fied doc­u­ments in the Swiss Nation­al Archives, uncov­ered by Syl­vain Besson of Geneva’s L
e Temps news­pa­per, reveal that in the 1960s the Swiss author­i­ties con­sid­ered him to be, “among oth­er things, an intel­li­gence agent of the British and the Amer­i­cans.” In July 2005, the Wall Street Jour­nal, after exten­sive archival research in Switzer­land and Ger­many, report­ed: “His­tor­i­cal evi­dence sug­gests Mr. Ramadan worked with the CIA.” Doc­u­ments from West Ger­man intel­li­gence archives, uncov­ered by the Jour­nal, reveal that Ramadan trav­eled on an offi­cial Jor­dan­ian diplo­mat­ic pass­port secured for him by the CIA, that “his expen­di­tures are financed by the Amer­i­can side,” and that Ramadan worked close­ly with the CIA’s Amer­i­can Com­mit­tee for Lib­er­a­tion from Bol­she­vism, Amcom­lib, which ran Radio Free Europe and Radio Lib­er­ty (both CIA front groups) in the 1950s and 1960s. Accord­ing to the Jour­nal, in May 1961, a CIA offi­cer with Amcom­lib met with Ramadan to plan a “joint pro­pa­gan­da effort against the Sovi­et Union.”

As it turned out, the Islam­ic Cen­ter was only the begin­ning of Ramadan’s ambi­tions. In 1962 he helped cre­ate a broad­er, more pow­er­ful orga­ni­za­tion that would become the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem for far-right Wah­habi inter­na­tion­al­ism: the Mus­lim World League. “My father was­n’t just one of the lead­ers of the found­ing group of the league,” says Hani Ramadan. “He had the orig­i­nal idea for its cre­ation.”

With vast Sau­di fund­ing, the league sent out mis­sion­ar­ies, print­ed pro­pa­gan­da, and doled out funds for the build­ing of Wah­habi-ori­ent­ed mosques and Islam­ic asso­ci­a­tions from North Africa through Cen­tral Asia, even out­side the Islam­ic world. Accord­ing to Gilles Kepel, a not­ed French schol­ar of Islam, it also served as a con­duit for Sau­di mon­ey to rad­i­cal Islamists, from the ultra­right Islam­ic Soci­ety in Pak­istan to Afghan jihadists to the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood itself. “The league iden­ti­fied wor­thy ben­e­fi­cia­ries, invit­ed them to Sau­di Ara­bia, and gave them the rec­om­men­da­tion (tazkiya) that would lat­er pro­vide them with largesse from a gen­er­ous pri­vate donor, a mem­ber of the roy­al fam­i­ly, a prince, or an ordi­nary busi­ness­man,” Kepel wrote in his book, Jihad: The Trail of Polit­i­cal Islam. “The league was man­aged by mem­bers of the Sau­di reli­gious establishment...along with ule­mas [Mus­lim cler­gy] from the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent con­nect­ed to the Deoband Schools or to the par­ty found­ed by Maw­du­di.” The Deoban­di move­ment, a school of ultra­ortho­dox Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ism found­ed in India, was instru­men­tal in estab­lish­ing the sys­tem of madrasas in Pak­istan that trained the Tal­iban.

In 1970, the Broth­er­hood and Ramadan saw their ulti­mate vin­di­ca­tion when Nass­er died and Anwar Sadat, a mem­ber of the Broth­er­hood decades before, became pres­i­dent of Egypt. The next year, Ramadan returned to Egypt at the head of a Mus­lim Broth­er­hood del­e­ga­tion, orga­nized and financed by Sau­di Ara­bia, to bro­ker a deal with Sadat to reestab­lish the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, 17 years after it was first out­lawed. (In the words of Robert Baer, a for­mer CIA oper­a­tions offi­cer who has writ­ten about ties between the CIA and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, Sau­di Ara­bia “pimped for the Broth­ers.”)

At the time, Sadat was try­ing to reori­ent Egypt away from its ties to the Sovi­et Union, mov­ing the Arab world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try into the orbit of the Unit­ed States and Sau­di Ara­bia. But Sadat lacked any real polit­i­cal base, and he had to purge scores of Nasserists from key posi­tions in the gov­ern­ment. He turned to the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood to help cre­ate a new base of sup­port, and the group seized its chance.

Dur­ing the 1970s, the Egypt­ian Islamist move­ment spread wild­ly, tak­ing over key insti­tu­tions and spawn­ing a host of rad­i­cal Islamist off­shoots, which in turn mobi­lized to sup­port the CIA’s anti-Sovi­et jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. These vol­un­teers also estab­lished a new orga­ni­za­tion, Islam­ic Jihad, which would lat­er join with Osama bin Laden as part of Al Qae­da. And in 1981, the rad­i­cals turned on their pro­tec­tor: An Islamist assas­sin gunned Sadat down in full pub­lic view dur­ing a tele­vised army parade.

AS INFLUENTIAL as he was in the Mid­dle East through­out the ’60s and ’70s, Ramadan was vir­tu­al­ly invis­i­ble to the West. The first time Amer­i­cans might have heard his name was in con­nec­tion with a bizarre mur­der in Wash­ing­ton; it would turn out to be the first instance of Islamist ter­ror­ism in the Unit­ed States. On July 22, 1980, the door­bell rang at the home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a for­mer press coun­selor at the Iran­ian Embassy in Wash­ing­ton who, after the fall of the shah in 1979, had found­ed the Iran Free­dom Foun­da­tion and had become a lead­ing oppo­nent of the Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini’s Islamist regime. On his doorstep that day was a young man, dressed as a mail­man. He fired sev­er­al shots into Tabatabai’s abdomen, killing him.

The assas­sin, who’d bor­rowed a mail truck from an unsus­pect­ing friend, was an Amer­i­can Mus­lim named David Belfield. Inves­ti­ga­tors track­ing Belfield, who was now call­ing him­self Daoud Salahud­din, found that he’d fled first to Gene­va and then to Iran. Then they dis­cov­ered a curi­ous fact: Just before the mur­der, a series of phone calls to Said Ramadan were placed from a pay phone near Belfield­’s work­place in Wash­ing­ton. Ramadan—an enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­er of Khome­ini’s revolution—also spoke with the fugi­tive in Gene­va, coor­di­nat­ed his escape with the Iran­ian Embassy in Switzer­land, and made a call to Aya­tol­lah Khome­ini’s son in Iran to make sure that Belfield made it safe­ly to sanc­tu­ary in Tehran. It lat­er turned out that Belfield had talked to Ramadan before accept­ing a job as a secu­ri­ty guard at the Iran­ian Embassy in Wash­ing­ton; accord­ing to The New York­er, Belfield pock­et­ed $5,000 for the assas­si­na­tion from his “han­dler” in the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment.

Belfield and Ramadan had first met in June 1975 when Ramadan spent sev­er­al months in the Unit­ed States, a tour that includ­ed speak­ing engage­ments at Wash­ing­ton’s Islam­ic Cen­ter, an Eisen­how­er-era mosque on Mass­a­chu­setts Avenue adja­cent to Rock Creek Park. Their first encounter was in Ramadan’s hotel room; after that, Ramadan stayed for three months at Belfield­’s mod­est home on Ran­dolph Street in Wash­ing­ton. Ramadan regaled Belfield with tales of jihad, and the young Amer­i­can began almost to wor­ship the Egypt­ian. Accord­ing to an account of the rela­tion­ship pub­lished much lat­er in the Wash­ing­ton Post, Belfield became Ramadan’s “per­son­al sec­re­tary, spe­cial emis­sary and devot­ed ser­vant. Ramadan became his spir­i­tu­al leader for life.” Ramadan told Belfield that if he were to under­take vio­lent action in sup­port of Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion, “he would­n’t be emo­tion­al­ly scarred by it—it would ‘be accom­plished and sim­ply for­got­ten.’ ” Belfield would lat­er tell The New York­er, “His tone was emphat­ic. And for me it was tak­en as a com­mand.”

From Iran, Belfield became an emis­sary of sorts for Ramadan. At one point he con­tact­ed Libya’s Muam­mar Qaddafi on Ramadan’s behalf; lat­er, he deliv­ered a mis­sive from Ramadan to Afghan Pres­i­dent Burhanud­din Rab­bani. For two years, Belfield him­self served in Afghanistan as a jihadist, fight­ing the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion.

By the 1980s and 90s, with Khome­ini’s regime in Iran and Zia ul-Haq’s Islamist dic­ta­tor­ship in Pak­istan firm­ly entrenched, the Afghan jihad under way, and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood estab­lished as a potent, under­ground oppo­si­tion move­ment in Egypt, Syr­ia, Pales­tine, and else­where, Ramadan’s ear­ly spade­work had borne fruit through­out the Mid­dle East. But even as Islamism came into its own, an aging Ramadan was fad­ing from promi­nence, and in 1995, at age 69, he passed away. His son Hani took over the reins of the Islam­ic Cen­ter while anoth­er son, Tariq, a pro­fes­sor in Switzer­land, pub­licly eschewed his father’s rad­i­cal­ism. In 2004, Notre Dame Uni­ver­si­ty invit­ed Tariq Ramadan to come to Indi­ana as a pro­fes­sor, but he was barred from enter­ing the Unit­ed States when the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty refused to grant him a visa.

Today, Ramadan’s lega­cy is evi­dent every­where. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood remains a pow­er­ful, transna­tion­al secret soci­ety com­mit­ted to the cre­at
ion of a fra­ter­ni­ty of Islam­ic republics that would be gov­erned accord­ing to their vision of sev­enth-cen­tu­ry Mus­lim laws. And it has used the back­ing of Iran­ian and Arab petro­le­um poten­tates to cre­ate a pow­er­ful polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture, from Egypt to Syr­ia (where its vio­lent under­ground pres­ence pos­es a direct threat to the sec­u­lar, nation­al­ist regime of Bashar al-Assad) to the chaos of Iraq, where the Sun­ni oppo­si­tion is being steered in a fun­da­men­tal­ist direc­tion by, among oth­ers, the Iraqi Islam­ic Par­ty, a Broth­er­hood branch.

Among Amer­i­can ana­lysts, the Broth­er­hood still has its defend­ers. Pro­fes­sors John O. Voll and John L. Espos­i­to of George­town Uni­ver­si­ty, both schol­ars of Islam, defend it as a mod­er­ate Islamist orga­ni­za­tion that rejects extrem­ism and vio­lence and note with approval that some U.S. offi­cials see the Broth­er­hood as “impor­tant poten­tial allies in the war on ter­ror­ism.” Reuel Marc Gerecht, a for­mer CIA offi­cer who is now a fel­low at the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute, argues in his 2004 book, The Islam­ic Para­dox, that even if the Broth­er­hood were to seize pow­er in Egypt and sup­press democ­ra­cy, “the Unit­ed States would still be bet­ter off with this alter­na­tive than with [the cur­rent] sec­u­lar dic­ta­tor­ship.” From the U.S.-allied theoc­ra­cy emerg­ing in Bagh­dad to the right-wing Islamists of Pak­istan, Amer­i­ca’s fatal fas­ci­na­tion with fun­da­men­tal­ism con­tin­ues.