The Muslim Brotherhood in Russia

By J. Millard Burr* & Rachel Ehrenfeld
Tuesday, December 9th, 2014 @ 11:05PM

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Left: Lenin calling for hard work – Kazakh, Tashkent, 1933 (the Mardjani Foundation)

Russia appears to be taking serious moves to combat the ‘radicalization’ of Muslims within its border.  Recent pro-Islamic reports are complaining that Russia is banning the Islamic hijab—the headdress Islamic law requires Muslim women to wear—and, perhaps even more decisively, key Islamic scriptures, on the charge that they incite terrorism.” Raymond Ibrahim, 25 November 2014.

In the pre-Soviet epoch, Islamic law ruled every aspect of life in Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, throughout the Caucasus. In the Soviet Union, severe restrictions were placed on Islam beginning in the late 1920s.  The Sharia, which serves as the Muslim code of law that regulates various aspects of social and community life, ceased to exist in any officially recognized manner.  Still, Islam was not extirpated; rather, it was driven underground.  It did not reemerge until the late 1980s when the Soviet government adopted a more permissive attitude toward its practices.

When Islam was driven underground, it assumed many local characteristics.  In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, for example, illicit shrines to local Muslim saints abounded.  Either a new, illegal class of religious functionaries became their guardians, or religious brotherhoods (the Sufi tariqat) served to continue their traditional rites.  Those that managed to survive did so only by eluding the iron fist of the various security organs whose goal was to stamp out Islam.

In the last years of the Soviet Union an incipient jihadist movement, which evolved from the war in Afghanistan, was nearly always viewed by the Soviet press as something alien to or in conflict with Muslim traditions.  That was particularly true in the northern Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—all of which would become especial targets of the international Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun).

Islam’s Revival

According to the Muslim Brotherhood’s own reporting, “The Ikhwan were active amongst Muslims in Central Asian Muslim republics since the ’70s.” (“Muslim Brotherhood Movement Homepage,” accessed 12-13-2005.)  And its interest in the region increased exponentially with the demise of the USSR.  In the six independent Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union that formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizstan, and Tajikistan), the Ikhwan located a fertile field of more than 70 million Muslims.  In addition, there remained more than 20 million Muslims within the Russian Federation itself.  Thanks in great part to the Ikhwan, the Muslim communities in the Caucasus and Russian Tatarstan would soon become centers of unrest.

With the demise of the Soviet Union its Islamic establishment, a Potemkin edifice that had fooled no one, was also dismantled. Thus, the Muslim community found in the newly independent states that Islam had re-emerged.  The Islam that they had inherited was an amalgam of local traditions and a nineteenth-century classical Islam.  The Islamic revival occurred with startling speed, and the politicians—many of whom were former Communist Party officials, and almost all were at least nominally secular—were forced to a modus vivendi with the Muslim congregation (ummah) that emerged in surprising numbers during the decade of the 1990s.

The Post-Communist transition resulted in extensive cultural change, and religious revival was the dominant component of that change.  Everywhere, mosques and Islamic study centers were built, and thousands of pilgrims undertook the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.  Likewise, a struggle occurred as the different movements within Islam itself (Sunni, Shia, Sufi) battled for the hearts and minds of millions of Muslim peoples long divorced from their religion.

The new rulers adopted a basic principle of democratic societies, namely, the separation of church and state.  However, in traditional Islamic practice, that separation does not exist.  Rather, it was a theology, taken from the Quran and patterned on the Sunnah of the Prophet Mohammed and the activities of its earliest leaders (the Salaf, or the earliest Muslim exemplars —rabbaniyyoun—as opposed to the Khalaf, or later-day Muslim scholars), that was the driving force that impelled the (predominantly Wahhabi) Islamist proselytizers.  That invasion, which included hundreds of Muslim Brothers, was funded in great part by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.  Its task was to create an indigenous force capable of reducing the influence of the secular elements in the former Soviet Republics and in Russia itself.

Looking Back

The presence of Muslim Brothers in Communist Russia is traced to the Soviet wooing of Egypt that began in the early nineteen fifties.  In 1956 a small number of students were sent to Cairo to study at Al-Azhar University.  And for the first time, Muslim citizens were permitted to study abroad.  In Cairo, the Ikhwan assumed that the Russian students were Kremlin spies sent to keep an eye on its activity at home and abroad.  Nasser soon crushed the Ikhwan, but the Brotherhood retained for years an underground presence at universities in Cairo and Alexandria. It also began to build a powerful presence in Europe.

The first Islamist challenges to Soviet authority occurred in the nineteen seventies when a small number of youthful members of the international Muslim Brotherhood began to circulate in villages in Chechnya and Dagestan.

The Ikhwan, a concentration of educated professionals, found their outreach work (da’wa) much easier among city dwellers than among villagers and nomads.  Still, the Brothers were especially active in northeast Dagestan and among the Avar, Dargin, and Kumyk ethnicities.  It was claimed that the political organizations they founded were quite “similar to the fundamentalist ‘Muslim Brothers’ elsewhere in the modern Arab World.” Thus, the Ikhwan was “instrumental in creating a small but important Islamic revival” even before the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Ikhwan intellectual with his Quran achieved notoriety, just as the jihadist revolutionary with his rifle would a decade later. (It is noted that from the inception of the Muslim Brotherhood its escutcheon is a depiction that unites the Koran with crossed swords.)

The Jihadist Movement

The jihadist movement in the Caucasus and Central Asia dates from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.  Opposition to the Soviet occupation quickly spread through mosques and madrassas the length of the Muslim world.  In the Soviet Union itself, six decades of Soviet rule had severely impacted Islam, but religion was dormant, not dead.  It was first awakened thanks to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and then by the institution of the perestroika (reform) policy introduced in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev.  Assuming power in 1985, just as the war in Afghanistan had bogged down, Gorbachev sought to restructure the Soviet Union economically, and even eased the regime’s stifling religious policy.

By then, thousands of Holy Warriors, or mujahideen, had made an appearance at way stations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  Their travel to the battlefields of Afghanistan was sponsored by innumerable Muslim charities.  In addition, wealthy individuals, Arab governments, and the international Muslim Brotherhood all played a major part in funding their jihad.  From the thousands of Arabs who passed through Peshawar, Pakistan, the gateway to Afghanistan, there emerged Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic leader.  A noted Muslim Brother, the Palestinian intellectual took charge of the distribution of foreign funds to mujahideen and Islamic charities.  Eventually, there emerged a loose association of jihadist leaders influenced by a worldview that extended well beyond the Muslim homeland. By the time the Soviets departed Afghanistan, their geopolitics extended to the re-conquest of land lost to Dar al-Islam (literally House of Islam, or historic Muslim lands) but also included the Dar al-Harb (literally, House of War, or land of the unbelievers) and, especially, the Soviet Union.

In Afghanistan Said Burhannudin Rabbani, professor of theology at the University of Kabul and the dominant leader of the Afghan Muslim Brotherhood, and his deputy Abdul Rasul Sayaf would lead the indigenous Afghan war with the Soviets.  The Soviets discovered that the Ikhwan, working through Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Service (al-Istikhbarat al-Ammah, usually called the SOR), was bankrolling Rabbani’s Jammat-e Islami.  And the Pakistan chapter of the Jammat-e Islami (an Ikhwan chapter) was active in Badakhshan province in far northeastern Afghanistan, serving as a spearhead to support directly the Islamist underground in the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics.

The Soviet Union found it worrisome that during the war in Afghanistan there emerged especially troublesome mujahideen movements among the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Even worse, it was clear that the loyalty of Muslims educated in the Soviet Union could no longer be taken for granted.  According to Soviet sources, the Ikhwan “actively recruited Arab students trained in the USSR capital.”  An example of an asset the USSR would lose was Emad al-Faluji, a Moscow student and former inhabitant of the Jebala refugee center in Gaza.  He was turned by the Jordanian Ikhwan, and after studying in Moscow he returned to Gaza where he later directed Hamas activity in the northern Gaza sector.”  (Faluji would eventually graduate to become Minister of Communications in the Palestine Authority.)

Jihad Goes Worldwide

During the war in Afghanistan (1979-1988) Soviet intelligence gathered a great deal of information on the Muslim Brotherhood in general, and the jihadists in particular.  The KGB was thus aware that, following an Islamic Conference Organization meeting held in Pakistan in January 1980, Saudi money began to play a significant role in mobilizing Muslim sentiment against the Soviet Union.

According to Soviet intelligence, a seminal event in the history of a worldwide jihad occurred at a secret meeting held in July 1982, during which the Muslim Brotherhood created an “international department” to compartmentalize its activity.  The Ikhwan’s International Department then created thirteen regional departments whose “purpose was to depose secular regimes and “create a united Islamic Khalifate.”  One regional department was charged with aiding Islamist movements in the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics.

Soviet intelligence agencies concluded there was no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the many Islamist entities (e.g., al-Qaeda) that sprung up during and after the war in Afghanistan.   Generally, the KGB was unwilling to differentiate, at least publicly, the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terrorist organizations.  And as far as one former KGB chief was concerned, there was no such thing as an al-Qaeda, only an Ikhwan. (“Russia Suspects Jordanian of Planning Poison Attacks in Chechnya.”

It is clear that even before the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan the jihadists were planning their penetration of the Soviet Republics.  Theirs was an ambitious plan subsidized by Saudi petrodollars, and it would be activated in a wide arc from the Caucasus Mountains, through Azerbaijan on the Caspian, through Uzbek SSR. to the Tajik R., and even into China’s Sinkiang province itself.  The prize was the allegiance of fifty million Muslims whose practices had been secularized during seventy years of Soviet rule.  The penetration was so rapid and so widespread that In October 1989 the Soviet Union demanded the governments of Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait halt Muslim extremists found “within their respective borders from intervening in the international affairs” of the Soviet Union.

One observer has written, “It is no secret that Wahhabis [a pejorative used synonymously with Muslim Brotherhood throughout Muslim Central Asia] receive significant financial support from abroad. People of Dagestan have even christened Wahhabism as ‘Dollar Islam.'”  By the mid-1990s, “Wahhabi congregations, though small in size, emerged in the nascent Russian republics of Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria” (Ibid.) And in Chechnya, the meeting of the first National Congress of the Chechen people opened in Grozny in late 1990, and the Chechen leadership dissolved its Soviet Council in October 1991.

In short order, a council was formed under Dzhokhar Dudayev, and on 1 November 1991 Chechnya declared its independence from Russia.  The declaration of independence was announced at a time when Moscow was riven by political chaos.  For a time it appeared possible that the Chechen rebels just might succeed.  As for Dudayev, he was already a sometime visitor to Khartoum, where the noted Muslim Brother Hasan al-Turabi had called the first Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, AKA “The Terrorist Internationale”, in April 1991.  The notorious figures who enjoyed Sudanese hospitality were literally a rogues’ gallery of an incipient terrorist world.  They included Osama Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Ahmed Refai Taha of Egypt, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Afghanistan, Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon, Shaykh Mubarik Gilani of Kashmir, Mohamad Farah Aidid of Somalia, and the many representatives of Palestine movements including George Habash, Musa Abu Marzook and Nayef Hawatma.

In the end, Dudayev’s effort to achieve an independent Chechnya failed, and the Islamist struggle in the Caucasus continues to this day.  In nearby Dagestan, a jihad was declared in 1998 by one Bagauddin Kebedov against “the unbelieving secular government of Dagestan and for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.” (Fuad B. Aliyev, “Framing Perceptions of Islam and the Islamic Revival in the Post-Soviet Countries,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, No. 7, Spring 2004.)  That effort also failed, but there too the Salafists have continued their struggle.

Saudi Penetration

With the end of the war in Afghanistan, the decision taken by a circle of Islamist forces to move against the Soviet Union was made without fanfare.  Nonetheless, the Russian FSB (the successor of the Soviet Union’s KGB) was well aware that the Ikhwan itself had chosen to “cooperate even with the most radical of Islamist groups.”  According to the FSB, the jihadist organizations the Ikhwan itself chose to support included al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al Kaeda (as the Russians called Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda), and the “Balkan fundamentalists.”

In September 1990—less than a year prior to the events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia opened its first embassy in Moscow.   That opening had been preceded by “charitable” activity undertaken by Saudi-supported Islamist organizations and approved by the USSR.  Diplomatic relations between the two countries were initiated by a secret visit to the Russian capital of Tariq Bin Laden, a representative of the powerful Saudi Bin Laden Group.  He was a younger member of the huge Bin Laden family and the junior brother of the famed Afghan-Arab mujahideen, Osama Bin Laden.  From that date forward the Saudi Department of Islamic Affairs would directly assist in the gradual flowering of Muslim movements that were occurring in the USSR and its former Muslim republics.

Once the embassy was opened, the Muslim World League was used to organize an outreach (da’wa) program that would eventually spread its tentacles wherever Muslims predominated.  Yet, while it was Saudi and Gulf money that nourished da’wa and financed the construction of orphanages, hospitals, and schools, it was the Ikhwan presence that made it work.  In addition to the Muslim World League, the Ikhwan was found in the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), SAAR Foundation, and the Islamic Development Bank.  They were all controlled by Saudi Arabia and contributed significantly to religious, educational, and other development works in Central Asia.

Riyadh also found it useful to employ the diplomatic, religious, and commercial channels of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Pakistan.  In addition, Islamic charities were everywhere at work; their activity became so egregious that the Russian intelligence service paid particular attention to the activity of Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, whose intelligence service observed (if not supervised) their activity abroad.  That support continued for more than two decades.  (In 2001 the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Ivanov, stressed that “From Saudi Arabia arrived immense financial sustenance of terrorists, including those in Chechnya. It continues today.”)

Prince Turki entered the Saudi Foreign Liaison Bureau in 1973 and soon joined its General Intelligence Department (GID).  In 1977 Turki succeeded Kamal Adham as chief of the Saudi General Intelligence Service.  Throughout his tenure, he used the Muslim Brotherhood as an essential tool in the battle against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, and later the penetration of Russia and of Europe itself.  Of primary significance was the role the Muslim Brotherhood “representatives” played in Dagestan and Chechnya in the west, and Tajikistan in the east. In 2001 a Russian analyst argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, (the Association of Islamic Brotherhood, or Jama’at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), was the “most powerful fundamentalist Islamic organization on a worldwide scale.” It was embedded in the heart of Moscow’s “Muslim problem” both in the Central Asian republics that emerged from the USSR and within Russia itself. (Ref.: Mikhail Falkov, above) And using Muslim charities as cover, Muslim Brothers from such places as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Palestine, and even Pakistan played a leading role in the emerging Islamist revolution.

The Russian Response

In time the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) exposed a network of militant Islamic cells run by extremists seeking “to stir up trouble” in both Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The FSB searched the offices of several organizations, which it claimed had been created “by the extremist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”  The FSB asserted that the Ikhwan had managed to create clandestine branches across Russia, including one in Moscow itself.  It claimed that the Moscow branch of the group was supported by the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee (KJRC), a Kuwait-based charity with long ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The ubiquitous KJRC was actually composed of ten relief organizations whose stated purpose was to support Muslim refugees from Afghanistan to the Balkans.

Islamist propaganda was seized during raids on Ikhwan offices and at the homes of staff members.  Ostensibly, it was learned that cells sought to “incite separatist feelings…and create Islamic state structures.”  According to the FSB, documents seized during raids revealed plans to expand operations, recruit supporters and infiltrate all levels of government.   The FSB also declared that the KJRC was providing ideological, military, and financial support to separatists, including rebel movements in Chechnya and extremist movements in Muslim regions of Russia and Central Asia (November 2000 reports from UPI, The Moscow Times, Center for Security Studies)

By November 2000 the FSB had listed 2000 “structures” linked to the Ikhwan in some 49 (of 89) Russian regions, and in the CIS countries “(Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and occasionally Ukraine).”  The Ikhwan, it was claimed, was connected to charitable entities sponsored by organizations in Kuwait, Yemen, Palestine, and Egypt.  The FSB claimed it had exposed a network of militant Islamic cells run by extremists seeking “to stir up trouble” in both Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

As a result of its investigations, in 2003 Russia declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  Eventually, it would choose to reverse that designation after Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood cohorts achieved power in Egypt in 2013.  Russian policy introduced by Vladimir Putin overtly sought to outflank the United States in Egypt and the Levant, and the Muslim Brotherhood could be useful to achieve that end.

* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy.

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Communism, Egypt, Hamas, Hamas/Gaza, Ikhwan, Islam, Jihad, Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine

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