Hassm Killings Raise Questions About Egyptian Counter-terror Practices

06/27/2017 . By Jake Greene
Photo: Sabry Muhammad Sabah Khalil

Jacob Greene, Senior Research Associate
Mohammad Sarhan, Research Intern

On June 20, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior announced that security forces had killed three members of Hassm during a security raid-turned-firefight in Burj al-Arab City, Alexandria. Just a day before, Hassm, a year-old group operating in mainland Egypt that is implicated in more than a dozen terror attacks, released a statement claiming responsibility for a bombing in Cairoover the weekend, which killed one police officer and wounded four. The ministry’s statement, which offered no indication of the date or time of the reported raid, contradicts reports that the three men had disappeared in recent weeks and raises further questions about possible human rights violations occurring under Egypt’s opaque counter-terrorism practices.

Several organizations and news outlets, including the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, reported that the three men — named in the ministry’s statement as Sabry Muhammad Sabah Khalil, Abdel Dhaher Saeed Yaseen Mitawa, and Ahmed Ahmed Muhammad Muhammad Abu Rashid — disappeared last month. Khalil, who was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for his alleged involvement in terror operations, was abducted by security forces on May 18, according to a statement issued by his family. The second individual, Mitawa, who was also wanted in connection to two terror cases in the Nile Delta, was reportedly arrested in Damanhour a day after Khalil, on May 19. (Mitawa’s brother, Salama, reportedly went to report his brother’s disappearance three days later and was arrested at a Damanhour police station.) Other reports suggest that the third individual, Abu Rashid, also disappeared in May, though few other details of his account are offered and whether at any point he was in police detention is unclear. In its statement on Monday, the ministry referred to all three men as prominent members of Hassm who had helped carry out terror attacks.

Khalil’s family claims that during his detention, Khalil was forced to reach out to a friend, Muhammad Abdel Moneim Zaki Abu Tabeekh, in order to set up a meeting with him. On May 20 (again according to the family), at the location of the arranged meeting, Abu Tabeekh was arrested by security personnel. The interior ministry, in a statement issued June 23, said that security forces had killed Abu Tabeekh after he opened fire on a checkpoint from his car in Sixth of October City. The statement explained that Abu Tabeekh’s body was found next to (outside of) his car.

This is not the first time that such mysterious circumstances have surrounded counter-terror operations. On January 13, the Ministry of Interior announceda security raid on a home in Arish that targeted and killed ten alleged terrorists who had taken part in an Islamic State-claimed assault on two security checkpoints in Arish days before. Much like the portrayal of events last week, the suspects in Arish reportedly opened fire on security personnel as they approached, before being killed by security forces. Locals claimed that some of the men had actually been detained by security sometime in 2016 and that they had no idea of their whereabouts until their deaths were announced. (In response, members of several tribes announced that they would launch a partial civil strike, demanding, among other things, a fair investigation into the incident, resignation of Sinai’s representatives in parliament, repatriation of the men’s bodies, and the release of individuals who were being held who had not been charged.) And, in April, an outlet affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood leaked a video portraying what appeared to be a military-backed militia questioning and then executing enemy non-combatants, at point-blank range. Those killed in the incident matched images of individuals that were released over the military spokesman’s Facebook page on two separate occasions, in November and December 2016, suggesting that they had reused images of operations ostensibly carried out by non-state actors. The graphic video made headlines and sparked condemnation from many rights groups.

These killings come amid a protracted counter-terrorism campaign that has swept up thousands across Egypt in large-scale, and at times seemingly indiscriminate, security sweeps. According to numbers compiled from official statements put out by the Ministries of Defense and Interior, security forces have arrested some 16,017 individuals across Egypt since January 2014 as part of counter-terror operations, even at times in the absence of actual acts of violence. Over that same period, military and police forces killed 2,483 alleged terrorists.

With the state applying even more repressive measures against Egypt’s independent media in the name of countering terrorism, including in 2015 a counter-terrorism law that banned reporting of terror statistics that contradict the state line and, most recently, the state’s blocking of domestic access to more than a hundred websites across Egypt (notably including Mada Masr), unfurling the details of these murky counter-terror operations and ensuring Egypt’s compliance with basic human rights norms and Egyptian law is increasingly difficult.