From Munich to the Soviet Steppes: the CIA finds the Muslim Brothers

Pentagon officials secretly met at the group’s Washington Fellowship House in 1955 to plan a worldwide anti-communism propaganda campaign endorsed by the CIA, documents from the Fellowship archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library show. 

by F. William Engdahl

“The fusion of ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabite Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood’s fanatical political activism was a deadly and highly shrewd combination that never lost sight of its goal of building a new global Islamic Caliphate that would become the world religion. The alliance of the Brotherhood with Saudi Wahhabism was to remain from the early 1950s for more than seven decades.”— F. William Engdahl

A Fateful Regrouping in Munich

The end of the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany were by no means the end of the influential circle of Nazis who had spent the war collaborating with Grand Mufti Al-Husseini and Al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, deeply Roman Catholic Munich became the center of the regrouping of the Islamic Jihad cadre assembled by Gerhard von Mende’s wartime Ostministerium, the Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories. 

In the chaos of collapse of order in the last days of the war, von Mende managed to see to it that numbers of his valued Islamist cadre who had fought alongside the Wehrmacht against their Soviet rulers during the war would get captured in the American, British, or French zones of what, in 1948, became the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. Soviet capture he knew meant certain death. His Jihadists were his bargaining chip to begin a new career working for the former enemy, the West.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office with a group of Muslim delegates, 1953. Said Ramadan is second from the right. [ Whitehouse Library]

The Soviet exiles had concentrated in Munich in southern Germany, coming from the ethnic Turkic regions of Tatarstan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and other Muslim territories of the Soviet Union. It was a fraternity of bitter anti-communist war veterans, but of a very odd sort.

While von Mende was working to bring together his Muslim friends in the Bavarian zone, where the US military was in control, the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency was trying to build a new propaganda capacity to beam US propaganda into the Soviet Union. It was ultimately named Radio Liberty, and its sister propaganda arm was called Radio Free Europe. Von Mende’s Muslims were destined to play a key role in the CIA’s propaganda operations out of Munich.

Rockefellers Join Billy Graham’s Crusade

By the early 1950s, the US-Soviet Cold War was in full force. Both sides used propaganda to try to win neutral third countries to the side of American capitalist free enterprise or to Soviet communism. Early on, the Rockefeller family, the most influential establishment family in America emerging out of World War II, together with the newly founded CIA, decided that Christian fundamentalism could be used as an instrument to help demonize Soviet communism in the eyes of ordinary churchgoing Americans. 

Abraham Vereide, an evangelical Norwegian-American minister, among other feats, claimed responsibility for converting a former Nazi SS officer, Netherlands’ Prince Bernhard, to Christ in the early 1950s. It was around the same time Bernhard became the nominal founding head of the Anglo-American Bilderberg Group meetings. Vereide would play a key role in the politicization of Christian groups for the Cold War.

Together, Vereide and Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Movement, which was influential in Germany’s “re-education” after 1945, secured sponsorship for something they called the Prayer Breakfast movement. It was very political, their praying and breakfasting. The two men soon founded a Fellowship House in Washington, DC, as a “spiritual service center” for members of Congress.

By the end of the 1940s, Vereide had about a third of the entire US Congress attending his weekly prayer meetings. In the early 1950s, he got President Eisenhower’s support as Vereide came to play a major role in the US government’s anti-communist activities.

The Los Angeles Times described the process:

Pentagon officials secretly met at the group’s Washington Fellowship House in 1955 to plan a worldwide anti-communism propaganda campaign endorsed by the CIA, documents from the Fellowship archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library show. Then known as International Christian Leadership, the group financed a film called “Militant Liberty” used by the Pentagon abroad.

Christianity, at least a US government version of it, was on the way to becoming a weapon in the Cold War.

In 1953, the Fellowship Foundation held the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast in the White House. 

The Reverend Billy Graham was a regular speaker at the Washington “Prayer Breakfasts.” Graham preached a fire and brimstone sort of anti-communism that was strongly promoted by the US government and America’s mainstream establishment. Graham called his large outdoor rallies the Billy Graham Crusades. Images of a new “holy crusade against Godless Soviet Communism” were beamed over US television and radio to millions of American homes. By the early 1950s, Billy Graham’s revival marathons across the United States were converting tens of thousands of stirred up ordinary Americans to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” 

In 1957, the Rockefeller brothers discreetly gave $50,000, a huge sum in that day, to launch Graham’s New York Crusade. It was a booming success, propelled by the then-novel use of television and the hidden support and corporate connections of the Rockefellers. The result was that, for the first time since the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Christian Fundamentalism was able to raise its head again in public, re-clothed in fiery Madison Avenue anti-communist garb.

The titans of American business—including Phelps Dodge copper heir Cleveland Dodge, Jeremiah Milbank and George Champion of the Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank, Henry Luce of Time-Life (the author of the famous 1941 Life magazine editorial proclaiming the dawn of the “American Century”), Thomas Watson of IBM, and Laurance Rockefeller’s partner at Eastern Airlines, Eddie Rickenbacker—were all among the select backers of the new Graham evangelical movement.

They clearly had motives other than the promotion of the Christian faith or supporting of brotherly love. 

The American establishment, at least the faction close to the Rockefeller family, had decided by 1957 that a worldwide “revival” of religion was necessary to “assert the United States’ moral leadership in the Free World.” The revival was, however, to be carefully nurtured and, when necessary, financed, to advance those powerful US banking and corporate interests.

CIA finds Von Mende’s Muslims

The newly created US Central Intelligence Agency, directed by Allen Dulles under the conservative presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also eager to find other ways than Billy Graham’s aggressive Christian anti-communist tirades to undermine the Soviet Union. Religion was to be the key again, but this time, it would be Political Islam.

The CIA had discovered a group of political Islamists that von Mende had managed to gather in and around Munich as refugees after the war. Thousands of former Soviet Muslims, who had fought with the Nazis against the Soviet Red Army, had sought refuge in West Germany, building one of the largest Muslim communities in 1950s Europe. 

In April 1951, the CIA first learned that von Mende had collected key Muslims in the Munich area and was setting up a think-tank in an attempt to rebuild his Nazi Ostministerium, this time on behalf of the Konrad Adenauer and the Christian Democratic German government rather than for Adolf Hitler. The CIA was interested in co-opting von Mende’s group for their own aims. 

The CIA discovered that these seasoned Muslim “warriors of Allah,” who had been cultivated and deployed by von Mende, had invaluable language skills, as well as invaluable contacts back in the Soviet Union. They began a project to recruit them as warriors for America’s anti-communist crusade. 

During the war, von Mende and his Ostministerium had organized a project with a plan approved by Hitler to free prisoners who would take up arms against the Soviets. They set up “Ostlegionen”—Eastern Legions—made up primarily of non-Russian, mainly Muslim, minorities willing to wage Jihad against the Soviet communist leadership as revenge for decades of Soviet oppression. Up to a million Soviet Muslims had joined Hitler’s Ostlegionen, and a select group had landed in Munich, the site of the CIA’s new Radio Liberty project. The CIA was soon recruiting them to work against the Soviet communists in various forms of Cold War activity. The new American intelligence service was learning how to work with Political Islam for the first time.

Brotherhood Joins with CIA 

As the former Muslim Nazi fighters began to work for the CIA in Munich, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also found a new “home” with the CIA. In 1957, the Eisenhower Doctrine was announced, promising armed US and NATO intervention against any threatened aggression in the Middle East, making the region into a de facto US sphere of interest. The Eisenhower Doctrine was aimed at the growing inroads that the Soviets were making, especially in Egypt, where a reformist military coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser had dethroned Britain’s puppet, King Farouk, in 1952.

In 1948, as an instructor in Egypt’s Royal Military Academy, Nasser had sent emissaries to try to negotiate an alliance of his Free Officers group, an anti-British, anti-monarchy group of young colonels and officers, with Hassan Al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. He soon realized that the rigid theocratic agenda of the Brotherhood was antithetical to his nationalist secular reform agenda. Nasser then decided to takes steps to limit Muslim Brotherhood influence within the military. It was the beginnings of a bitter hostility between Nasser and Al-Banna’s Brotherhood.

Nasser had been the architect of the 1952 officers’ revolt by the Egyptian Army that overthrew the monarchy. During the 1940s, the very pro-British Egyptian King Farouk had financially subsidized the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter to the power of nationalists and communists. That made them a direct ideological opponent of Nasser’s reformist nationalism. 

By 1949, the King, however, also began to have doubts about working with Al-Banna’s organization as the influence of the Brothers grew greatly. His Prime Minister, Mahmud al-Nuqrashi, was assassinated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “secret apparatus.” The King responded with massive repression, arresting over one hundred leading members. In February 1949, Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna himself was assassinated. The killer was never found, but it was widely believed that the murder had been carried out by members of the Egyptian political police on orders of the King. An MI6 report was unequivocal, stating, “The murder was inspired by the government, with Palace approval.”

By 1953, with the Egyptian monarchy formally abolished and the Muslim Brotherhood on the run, Nasser’s Free Officers were able to govern as the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), with Nasser as vice-chairman. He soon grabbed leading power as chairman and proceeded to ban all political parties. No communist himself, Nasser became a leading spokesman for Arab nationalism and joined the emerging Non-Aligned Movement, with Tito’s Yugoslavia and India’s Nehru. The Non-Aligned group of nations sought to define a “middle way” between Soviet communism and American capitalist free markets.

In 1953, Nasser introduced far-reaching land reforms and was taking steps to renationalize the British-controlled Suez Canal Company. London was not happy with the emergence of Nasser. In fact, British MI6 secret intelligence tried repeatedly to assassinate him.

Brotherhood’s Failed Assassination 

On October 26, 1954, Mohammed Abdel Latif, a Muslim Brotherhood member, also attempted to assassinate Nasser while Nasser was delivering a speech in Alexandria to celebrate British military withdrawal from Egypt. The strong suspicion was that British intelligence stood behind the Brotherhood’s attempt on Nasser. Nasser’s speech was being broadcast to the entire Arab world via radio. The gunman missed after firing eight shots. In response, Nasser ordered a massive crackdown on Al-Banna’s Society of Muslim Brothers, as well as against leading communists. Eight Brotherhood leaders were sentenced to death. Thousands went underground. 

By 1956, Nasser had gained enough popular support that he felt able to nationalize the Suez Canal in retaliation for US and British cutoff of promised financial aid for construction of the Aswan Dam. He also recognized Communist China and made arms deals with communist East Bloc countries. Nasser, never a communist but rather a strong-willed anti-colonialist and Arab nationalist, was becoming a major problem for the US Cold War agenda in the Middle East. 

Saudis meet the Brothers in A Marriage Made in Hell

The Eisenhower administration began to look to the arch-conservative monarchy of King Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia as a counter within the Arab world to the growing influence of Nasserism. That was to result in a fateful marriage of political Islam in the form of exiled Egyptian Brotherhood members and the Saudi monarchy. CIA Cairo Station Chief Miles Copeland officiated at the marriage ceremony, organizing the escape of Egyptian Brotherhood members into Saudi Arabia in what was to transform over the next decades the political map of the world. 

Saudi Arabia was perhaps the most conservative, strictest Muslim country in the world. The desert land, only decades earlier an undeveloped land ruled by nomadic Bedouins, practiced a unique form of Islam called Wahhabism. It was named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792, the first modern Islamic fundamentalist extremist. 

Abd al-Wahhab made the principle that absolutely every idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era, about 950 AD, was false and should be eliminated. That was the central point of his movement. Muslims, in order to be true Muslims, insisted al-Wahhab, must adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs set forth by Muhammad. And of course, only those who followed the strict teachings of al-Wahhab were true Muslims because only they still followed the path laid out by Allah. Accusing someone of not being a true Muslim was significant because it was forbidden for one Muslim to kill another; but if someone was not a “true Muslim” as defined by Wahhabism, then killing them in war or in an act of terrorism becomes legal.

There, in the words of John Loftus, a former US Justice Department official charged with prosecuting and deporting Nazi war criminals, with the joining of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers and Saudi strict Islam, “they combined the doctrines of Nazism with this weird Islamic cult, Wahhabism.”

Allen Dulles’ CIA secretly persuaded the Saudi monarchy to help rebuild the banned Muslim Brotherhood, thereby creating a fusion with Saudi fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam and vast Saudi oil riches to wield a weapon across the entire Muslim world against feared Soviet incursions. A young man named Osama bin Laden was later to arise out of this marriage in Hell between the Brotherhood and Wahhabite Saudi Islam. 

In a 1957 meeting with the CIA Director of Covert Operations, Frank Wisner, Eisenhower declared the US should engage the “Holy War” aspect of Arab Muslims in order to get them to fight communism. The Muslim Brothers were willing to oblige, and there began the unholy alliance of US intelligence with the death cult called the Muslim Brotherhood.

By 1954, Saudi Arabia had become the center of worldwide Muslim Brotherhood activity. The Saudi monarchy had struck a grand bargain with the Brotherhood:  in return for unheard-of financial support from Saudi oil revenues, the Brotherhood would focus their political activity abroad, outside the Saudi Kingdom, spreading their influence in countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Syria. They would not organize politically inside Saudi Arabia, where the Monarchy had banned all political parties.

Leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Dr Abdullah Azzam, became the teachers in the Saudi madrassas, the religious schools. The Brothers retained their secret organizational “family” structure inside Saudi Arabia and established successful businesses, even becoming editors of influential Saudi newspapers, such as El Medina. 

By 1961, the Muslim Brothers were able to persuade the Saudi King to create the Islamic University of Medina, where dozens of Egyptian scholars that were secretly Muslim Brothers, established themselves. Significantly, the university, a center of Islamic extreme conservative ideologues of Saudi Wahhabism, combined with the political militancy of the Egyptian Brotherhood, became the petri dish for training the next generation of Islamic Jihadists and Salafists. Notably, some 85 percent of the students at the Medina university came from outside the Saudi Kingdom. That internationalism enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to spread the cadre of the Brotherhood throughout the entire Islamic world.

The vehicle for their worldwide mission that the Saudi-exiled Muslim Brothers used was the Muslim World League (MWL). In 1962, a year after the Brotherhood’s success in founding of the Islamic University of Medina, they convinced the Saudi Royal family to finance and support their league as well. 

The Muslim World League was headquartered in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi government as the official sponsor. It described itself as an Islamic, non-governmental organization involved in “the propagation of Islam, and refutation of dubious statements and false allegations against the religion.” Their stated goal was “to help to carry out projects involving propagation of the religion, education and culture, and to advocate for the application of the rules of the Shari’a either by individuals, groups or states.”  In reality the Muslim World League represented the fusion of Wahhabite strict interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed with the activist political Jihad of the Brotherhood—a very dangerous combination.

The Muslim World League created offices throughout the Muslim world, as well as in non-Muslim majority regions in the West with offices in Washington, New York, and London. The organization reportedly used its network and Saudi money to fund Islamic centers and mosques and to distribute materials promoting its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Its Secretary General was always a Saudi national.

The Saudi fusion of ultraconservative Wahhabite Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood’s fanatical political activism was a deadly and extremely shrewd combination that never lost sight of its long-term goal of building a new global Islamic Caliphate that would become the world religion. The alliance of the Brotherhood with Saudi Wahhabism was to remain from the early 1950s until around 2010, when the Saudi monarchy, amid the upheavals of the Arab Spring, began to increasingly fear the Brotherhood, at some point, would turn against the monarchy that had fed them so long.

Princeton Celebrates Ramadan

While many leading exiled Muslim Brothers were brought with aid of the CIA into Saudi Arabia, Hassan Al-Banna’s son-in-law and ideological heir, Said Ramadan, was invited to Princeton in the early 1950s to meet US intelligence, shake hands in a personal meeting with President Eisenhower, and discuss what was to become a fateful and deadly collaboration. 

Said Ramadan had been in Damascus, Syria, for a conference on the day of the assassination attempt against Nasser and, thereby, escaped the Egyptian police roundup of Brotherhood members. He finally ended up in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, under protection of the Swiss Government, who saw his anti-communism as useful during the Cold War. Declassified Swiss Archives documents revealed that the Swiss regarded Ramadan as an “intelligence agent of the English and the Americans.”

From his Islamic Center in Geneva, Ramadan maintained his influence around the world with his fellow Brothers in the aftermath of the murder of his father-in-law, Al-Banna. He traveled frequently to Pakistan, where he helped organize a fanatical Jihadist Islamic Student Society, IJT, fighting leftist students at the universities. His IJT was organized by Ramadan on the Egyptian Brotherhood model. The student IJT group was the forerunner of radical Islamic Jihadism that later would train the Muslim Brotherhood’s Taliban project in Afghanistan with aid of the Pakistani ISI secret intelligence agency. 

In September 1953, Said Ramadan was invited to attend an “Islamic Colloquium” to be held with leading Islamic intellectuals from around the world at the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey. The invitation and the idea to organize a meeting between Said Ramadan and President Eisenhower came from the co-founder and Deputy Director of the CIA-linked US Information Agency (USIA), Abbott Washburn. Washburn was liaison between USIA and the White House.

Washburn had convinced C.D. Jackson, Eisenhower’s psychological warfare expert, of the importance of the idea. Jackson was a senior CIA officer sitting in the White House as liaison between the President, the CIA, and the Pentagon.

The Princeton conference was cosponsored by Washburn’s USIA, the State Department, Princeton University, and the US Library of Congress. Washburn wrote Jackson that his goal in the conference and with a Presidential meeting with Ramadan and others was “that the Muslims will be impressed with the moral and spiritual strength of America.” Washburn and the CIA had other unspoken goals in mind than trying to impress Ramadan of the moral and spiritual strength of America.

John Foster Dulles, a fanatical Cold War conservative Republican and former Wall Street lawyer for the Rockefeller interests, who had been an open Nazi sympathizer at the beginning of the Second World War, was Secretary of State. His brother, Allen Dulles, another Rockefeller family lawyer, was CIA Director. They were both ready to test the Muslim Brotherhood as a force to damage Soviet influence.

CIA files on this part of Cold War history are still closed for reasons of “national security,” but what is known is that Radio Liberty executive Robert Dreher, a militant CIA agent who believed not in containment, but in an active “rollback” of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, invited Said Ramadan to Munich in 1957 to become part of the board of the Islamic Center of Munich. There Ramadan would go on to become the key architect of the Munich mosque as a future center for spreading Islam through Europe and the World. 

Ramadan was charismatic, highly intelligent, and urbane, a perfect spokesman for the CIA’s operations against the Soviet Union. That same year, the CIA’s Operations Coordinating Board created an Ad Hoc Working Group on Islam that included top officials from the Government’s US Information Agency, the State Department, and the CIA. 

The relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the CIA over the ensuing decade and into the 1970s were mainly focused on countering Soviet influence in the Arab Middle East, where Nasser’s Arab Socialism had become a major influence in Iraq, Syria, and across the Arab world, threatening the Islamist agenda of the Brotherhood. 

Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and his charismatic presence made him a magnetic personality across the Arab world. The fact that he had turned to Moscow for aid, while remaining non-aligned, gave him further appeal. Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood became the major vehicle—aside from the customary CIA orchestrated coups, such as that against Mossadegh in Iran, or assassinations—for Washington to indirectly and secretly counter the appeal of Nasserism and nationalism in the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Jihadist political Islam was now firmly on the CIA radar. The marriage of the two—US covert intelligence agencies and fanatical Muslim Brothers and Jihadist Islam—were to form a main pillar of US secret intelligence and secret foreign policy for more than seven decades. Until the shocking events of September 11, 2001 and revelations that Osama bin Laden had been trained in Afghanistan during the 1980’s by the CIA, few had the slightest idea of the sinister alliance.

In 1979, the had CIA turned more actively to what was now Said Ramadan’s Muslim Brotherhood when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Their project was called Mujahideen,or people doing Jihad, and one of their young recruits was a Saudi who had been educated in Saudi Arabia by the Brotherhood. His name was Osama bin Laden.

F. William Engdahl is an award-winning geopolitical analyst, strategic risk consultant, author, professor and lecturer. He has been researching and writing about the world political scene for more than thirty years. His various books on geopolitics—the interaction between international power politics, economics and geography—have been translated into 14 foreign languages from Chinese to French, from German to Japanese.