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February 25, 2019

Like a Fire in a Forest: ISIS Recruitment in Egypt’s Prisons

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Speaking in Cairo on January 10, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for “his vigorous efforts to combat the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it. His leadership, his assertion of leadership, is consistent with Egypt’s historical role as a true leader…Our robust battle against ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups will continue.”

Pompeo’s praise notwithstanding, Sisi’s brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling ISIS’s growth, as the group recruits supporters in Egypt’s prisons at an accelerating rate. Today, ISIS has effectively taken control of parts of the country’s vast prison system. “It’s like a fire in a forest,” one former prisoner told a Human Rights First researcher. The scope of the problem is vast. As a prisoner released at the end of 2017 told Human Rights First, “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.”

The Egyptian government under Sisi has arrested and detained thousands upon thousands of Egyptians, many on spurious grounds. Many of the prisoners are peaceful dissidents, or are apolitical, and others simply fell out with a local police officer. In prison they are likely to face torture or other forms of brutality. As the State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report on Egypt noted, “The most significant human rights issues included…harsh or potentially life-threatening prison conditions.”

ISIS wins favor with prisoners by exploiting the humiliation and rage caused by abuse. The group offers the promise of vengeance against Egyptian authorities, and protection against both guards and other prisoners. As the number of ISIS prisoners has grown, they have become an increasingly powerful force inside the penal system, intimidating guards, and in some instances taking de facto control over parts of prisons.

This report is based primarily on interviews with ex-prisoners conducted during a trip to Egypt in January 2019. Those interviewed provided detailed, credible, and consistent reports, which included graphic accounts of torture. For security reasons, some agreed to speak on the condition that they not be quoted, while others asked to use assumed names to protect their identities.

Sisi is engineering a constitutional change to extend his presidency. On February 14, 2019, the Egyptian parliament approved far-reaching measures to change the constitution. The proposed amendments would allow President Sisi to extend his term until 2034. The result of a referendum is seen as a foregone conclusion in Sisi’s favor, as little opposition will be tolerated, and the vote is expected in the coming months.

There appears slim chance that Sisi will unilaterally curb the repressive policies that are fueling the growth of ISIS. Nor is his government likely to face pressure to do so from the Trump Administration, which—despite withholding a portion of military aid to Egypt in 2017—has gone out its way to praise the Sisi in recent months.

The national security threat posed by Sisi’s policies aren’t lost on certain members of Congress. In June 2017, for example, a bipartisan group of ten senators led by Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) wrote to President Trump, pointing out that the denying human rights “risks enabling Egypt to perpetuate the very sorts of conditions that help to breed violent extremism and terrorism.”

Security aid, however, continues to flow to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) after Israel. In total, Egypt received some $47 billion in FMF since 1979. The FY 2019 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which was signed into law in February 2019 as part of the 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act, essentially maintains conditions imposed in 2018 on the $1.3 billion in military aid provided annually to Cairo. Under the FY 2019 law, $300 million of the $1.3 billion is subject to certain human rights conditions, though the legislation includes a waiver allowing the secretary of State to release the restricted funds if he deems doing so to be in the national interest.

The appropriation act’s human rights conditions don’t, however, reference prison reform and other steps to combat the growth of ISIS in the penal system. In any case, the Egyptian government isn’t meeting the human rights conditions contained in the legislation, and the United States once again releasing all available funds would amount to a vote of confidence in a leader whose policies are weakening, not strengthening, U.S. national security. Human Rights First recommends, therefore, that the United States use military aid and other forms of leverage to press Sisi to end arbitrary arrests and torture and to improve prison conditions, among other steps to reform the country’s egregious human rights situation.

A full list of recommendations appears at the end of this report.

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