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February 26, 2019

How ISIS Recruits in Egyptian Prisons 

The 18-year-old Egyptian was arrested for excessive partying, imprisoned, and tortured. Guards suspended him from the ceiling, flogged, and electrocuted him. Shortly after, a recently released prisoner told me the teenager joined ISIS. “The ISIS guys talked to him, they offered him revenge. He joined them and changed his nickname to Suicide Vest.”

Last month I was in Egypt, listening to former political prisoners describe how ISIS is recruiting detainees across the country’s vast penal system. I spoke to over a dozen people released from various jails and prisons since 2014. Some are in exile; some are still in Egypt. They gave me detailed, consistent, and credible accounts of ISIS’s growing power within the prison system, where it preys on abused prisoners, exploiting their anger and offering them promises of revenge.

One former prisoner, released in October 2017 after spending a total of over four years in nine different prisons, told me: “By the time I left, the radicalizing was spreading very fast…When you start off with a cell of two hundred people, you could have by the end of a year at least one hundred of them radicalized. It was happening everywhere I was detained.” 

Egypt’s prisons are exactly what ISIS wants them to be: centers of humiliation, abuse, and torture. They have become breeding grounds for violent extremism, prolific production lines for ISIS.

This is clearly a problem for Egypt, the region, and the United States. Yet senior officials in the Trump Administration haven’t publicly addressed this crisis, preferring to lavish praise on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite widespread human rights abuses both inside and outside prisons. 

Speaking in Cairo last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked Sisi “for his vigorous efforts to combat the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it...Our robust battle against ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups will continue.” 

But Sisi’s prisons are producing ISIS members at an increasing rate. In fact, ISIS is now so powerful they have de facto control of parts of the prison system. One man, released in November 2018, said: “In some prisons, like El Netrun, there are hundreds in the ISIS group and they’re really powerful. They control parts of how the prison is run and can identify vulnerable prisoners they want transferred to their cell to radicalize, and the guards do it.”

Sisi, meanwhile, is audaciously seeking to change the constitution and rewrite the term limit restrictions so that he can stay in power until 2034. The U.S. government should oppose this power grab, and it should use both its soft and hard power to make clear that it will no longer accept torture in Egypt’s prisons and will condition future aid on a radical improvement in prison conditions.

The former detainees all said that ending abuse in the prison system would make it much harder for ISIS to recruit. One told me: “Sometimes people in jail are there because they were picked up at a checkpoint or had something against the government on their Facebook. Then in prison they get electrocuted, in the mouth, on their genitals. After that they’re ready to listen to ISIS.”

Under current appropriations legislation, $300 million of the $1.3 billion the U.S. government gives to Egypt is supposed to be conditioned on human rights progress, but none of these conditions specify an end to prison abuse. 

No one knows how many political prisoners there are in Egypt, though estimates are generally around 60,000. The longer the torture continues, the easier it will be for ISIS to recruit detainees. “The ones recruited by ISIS attract others,” a former prisoner said. “It was like a fire in a forest.”

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Brian Dooley's new report for Human Rights First, Like a Fire in a Forest: ISIS Recruitment in Egypt's Prisons, is available here.