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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.

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.

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