David Cameron has ordered an urgent investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood amid fears that the Islamist organisation is planning extremist activities from Britain.
The review will include an assessment by MI6, the foreign intelligence service, of claims that the group was behind the murder of three tourists on a bus in Egypt in February and a spate of other recent attacks.
MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, will also be asked to investigate how many senior leaders are based in this country after last year’s military coup in Egypt, which deposed Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected president.
The Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation and has inspired similar movements around the world with its combination of political activism and charity work.
Now officials say it is “possible but unlikely” that the organisation will join the list of groups banned in Britain because of their links with terrorism.
The Government is understood to have been presented with evidence that the leaders of the organisation, which says it is committed to the non-violent, democratic promotion of Islam, held a meeting to decide its strategy in London late last year.
Mr Morsi remains in jail awaiting trial for treason with many of the group’s most senior figures. Others are said to have fled to London where, according to some reports, they are co-ordinating an international response from a flat in Cricklewood, northwest London.
Long-suppressed in the Middle East, the Brotherhood sprang to prominence during the Arab Spring and won Egypt’s first democratic election in 2012. It has since been driven underground following violent street protests in which more than 1,000 were killed after last year’s military takeover.
A court in Cairo last month sentenced to death 529 Brotherhood members in a significant escalation of the crackdown on the group. In response to protests from some Western governments, Egypt’s caretaker government insists that it is implicated in attacks on army bases and tourists and has banned it as a terrorist organisation.
Mr Cameron ordered an urgent review after concluding that not enough was known about the group’s make-up and aims. He has asked Sir John Jenkins, Britain’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to report on its “philosophy and values and alleged connections with extremism and violence” by the end of July. Initial work by Sir Kim Darroch, the National Security Adviser, has already started.
Senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office figures have so far resisted proscription, arguing that to hobble a largely moderate body would only serve to bolster extreme Islamists. “The truth is that this is a large, disparate organisation that takes different forms in different countries,” an official said.
Others, including in the security services, take a markedly different view. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, is said to have described the Muslim Brotherhood as “at heart a terrorist organization”.
One official confirmed that there were worries that some fringe elements of the Muslim Brotherhood may have links with violent extremists.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Muslim Brotherhood has risen in prominence in recent years but our understanding of the organisation, its philosophy and values, has not kept pace with this.
“Given the concerns about the group and its alleged links to violent extremism, it’s absolutely right and prudent that we get a better handle of what the Brotherhood stands for, how they intend to achieve their aims and what that means for Britain.”
The Brotherhood is seen as the first movement to espouse politicial Islam, envisaging a state run along the lines of religious law, and has had many offshoots and imitators. Many commentators say that the violent extremism of al-Qaeda can be traced back to the Brotherhood.
Its most prominent presence in the UK was the Muslim Association of Britain, which played a key role in the campaign against the Iraq war, but that movement suffered a split almost ten years ago. One of the groups emerging from that split, the Cordoba Foundation, is seen as the organisation closest to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, Ikhwan in Arabic, is not a proscribed organisation in Britain and until now has not been deemed a threat to national security. Its associates here have been viewed as non-violent Islamists and have engaged in political and academic discussion.
However, the violent demise of the group’s brief period of power in Egypt has led to concerns that some fleeing repression by the new regime in Cairo may seek shelter and support in Britain.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood said that it would co-operate with the Downing Street review. “It is a religious obligation for any Muslim Brotherhood member who lives whether in his homeland or any state to respect its system and laws,” he said.
Kwasi Kwarteng, a Tory MP and member of the Conservative Middle East Council , said that the West had been blindsided by the group’s sudden emergence. “I saw how they won elections in Egypt and essentially they ran Egypt very much in a partisan manner. They are quite loose, so they will say different things at different people at different times to seem moderate. They are great masters of disguise.
“I think people in the West can get very deluded about the nature of the Brotherhood. Certainly three years ago we thought they were going to be just another political party.”