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Egypt’s Prisons Are Becoming Recruiting Grounds for the Islamic State
Abuse behind bars and a record high rate of detainment are a recipe for disaster.
As the Islamic State suffered defeat in its final Syrian stronghold of Baghouz last month, the White House declared victory over the self-declared caliphate, announcing via Twitter that it has been “obliterated off the map.” But human rights organizations and activists are warning that far from the front lines, recruitment for the Islamic State and other extremist groups is increasing in Egypt’s prisons, where appalling prisoner conditions have accelerated recruitment.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has presided over what has been described by Human Rights Watch as “Egypt’s worst human rights crisis in decades.” Human Rights Watch estimated in 2016 that more than 60,000 people had been arrested or charged in Egypt since Sisi’s predecessor was ousted in a 2013 coup, with the arrests targeting a broad group of political opponents. Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher for Amnesty International, said, “In Egypt, it is one of the worst periods in terms of crackdowns and arbitrary arrests. People can be arrested in Egypt for absolutely no reason at all.”
Egypt already has a history of militancy and extremism flourishing behind bars—al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is among the high-profile jihadis radicalized in the country’s prisons. But Amnesty has branded Sisi’s crackdown on civil liberties “unparalleled in Egypt’s recent history,” with people being detained for “satire, tweeting, supporting football clubs, denouncing sexual harassment, editing movies.” In 2015, the government acknowledged that prisons were 160 percent over capacity, and the U.S. State Department since then has referenced life-threatening overcrowding. Estimates of the prison population vary, but in 2016, World Prison Brief estimated that around 90,000 prisoners, whether political or not, were held in the country’s prisons, with another 16,000 people held in its jails. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 18 new prisons have been built in the last six years, according to Human Rights Watch.
Rights organizations and former detainees fear that more people than ever are vulnerable to radicalization in prisons and jails.
Ayman Abdelmeguid, an engineer, says he was arrested for political activism in 2015 and was detained in al-Qanatar prison, the jail of Giza’s court, and several police stations. He saw several men detained for nonviolent crimes who then turned to extremism during detention.
“I have seen men who have been imprisoned because of a disagreement with a local police officer who then made a case against them. They end up going to prison, they are in a cycle of not being tried and then being put under arbitrary detention for an indefinite amount of time,” he said in March.
“These people are filled with so much hate—they hate the state and they hate the police. They have lost their jobs, they have lost their businesses. This makes their lives miserable, they leave a family behind them. These are the people who are approached by extremists.”
Rather than condemning prison overcrowding and civil rights violations, in July 2018, the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump reinstated $195 million in military assistance to the Egyptian government. Trump froze the funds in 2017 in protest of Sisi’s passage of a law cracking down on nongovernmental organizations and the government’s cozy relationship with North Korea, but Washington restored military aid despite the absence of any meaningful human rights reform. The decision to concede funding in spite of human rights concerns followed a precedent set by the Obama administration, which froze military financing to Egypt in 2013 over human rights concerns only to relent two years later, citing a need to combat Islamic State militants.
Speaking in Cairo this January, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the Egyptian president for “his vigorous efforts to combat the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it.” In spite of the Trump administration’s praise, both Republican and Democratic senators have recognized the threat that Sisi’s policies actually pose to national and international security. In 2017, a bipartisan group of senators led by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin wrote to Trump, urging him to press the Egyptian government on human rights issues or “risk enabling Egypt to perpetuate the very sorts of conditions that help to breed violent extremism and terrorism.”
The State Department’s latest human rights report cited numerous human rights issues in Egypt including unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government, forced disappearances, life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, political imprisonment, and torture. These conditions have been acknowledged by numerous human rights organizations and, according to former detainees, are pushing prisoners toward the Islamic State.
According to Brian Dooley, a senior advisor at Human Rights First, “Sisi’s brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling ISIS’s growth, as the group recruits supporters in Egypt’s prisons at an accelerating rate. I have spoken to people who have seen ISIS recruiting in prisons as recently as this last year. ISIS now has de facto control of parts of the prison system.”
The Islamic State is recruiting peaceful dissidents and apolitical prisoners by exploiting rage and humiliation caused by abuse, Dooley told Foreign Policy via email. “People are joining the group for both revenge and protection.”
The former prisoner Mohamed Nabil was a prominent member of the April 6 youth movement, founded in 2008 to support striking workers. While being held in an Egyptian prison, Nabil said, he saw fellow detainees tortured and then held in cells with Islamic State-affiliated prisoners.
“The officials used to make us attend torture sessions and make us watch Islamists being tortured, electrified, and hanged from the ceiling. They would handcuff their hands behind their backs and hang them from the ceiling until the moment their shoulder was dislocated. They used to electrify people in their sensitive parts,” he said in March.
“We saw young kids, aged 13 years old up to 18 years old, they had been detained and electrified. This is how ISIS recruited them. ISIS was running the inside. Young kids were raped by officials, and ISIS will tell them, ‘Those guys should be killed, and we can help.’”
Nabil explained the process of radicalization: “Vengeance is the first motive. The second thing, it is a promise: If you die and you are fighting for your principles, you will go to heaven. It’s a promise of going to heaven, and at the same time you’ll get revenge, so it sounds like a good deal.”
Radicalization in prisons is not new, nor unique to Egypt. In Europe, radicalization within national prison systems has been linked to deadly terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and other countries. Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, was radicalized in a French prison. Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris, and Benjamin Herman, who killed two police officers and a civilian in Liège, Belgium, are thought to have been radicalized in prisons in France and Belgium, respectively.
Rajan Basra, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation said that within Europe, the center has seen many cases of prisoners radicalizing after being convicted for a common criminal offense. “They are separated from friends and family inside the prison, which is often a hostile environment where people have to look for physical safety, and they have to find new allies,” Basra said.
“They meet extremists who recognize the vulnerabilities.”
Governments across the world have been battling to stop the recruiting influence of the Islamic State since the group seized control of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and inspired jihadi attacks around the world. Although the Islamic State has experienced territorial defeat in Syria, international security forces and national governments are still struggling to completely contain radicalization. Former Egyptian detainees believe that addressing human rights violations in prisons would at least slow down recruitment in the country.
Fahad, whose name has been changed at his request, was released from prison in November 2018 after being detained in six different detention facilities over nearly four years. “Better prison conditions would take away some of the grievances that ISIS uses to convince prisoners—it’s not a guarantee, but if you stop the torture and the beatings it takes away a bit of the power from ISIS,” he said in an interview with Human Rights First.
For Abdelmeguid, detained in 2015, the cost of inaction is clear: “There was one guy in my cell who saw a Muslim Brotherhood march outside his home, he saw a girl that he liked in the march. He went down to try to make conversation with her. He didn’t join the march, but he ended up in prison, where he was assaulted. In prison, he told me, ‘The moment I get out, I am going to the desert to train with ISIS.’”