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.

Illustration: John Ritter

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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 hurricane.

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 Le 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 creation 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.


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