This briefing was updated on April 26, 2017.
Initial reports described the uniformed men in the video as members of the Egyptian Armed Forces, but later reports made it clear that they are military-backed militiamen. This version of the briefing corrects that description, among other updates.
- An April video released by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mekameleen channel depicts what appears to be state-backed militiamen carrying out extrajudicial killings of civilians. The video has been shared widely, prompting serious concerns about violations of international and domestic law.
- The video also raises questions about Egypt’s declared war on terror in the Sinai, particularly about the targets of its counter-insurgency operations. Since mid-2013, 6,268 deaths of “terrorists” were reported in military operations in North Sinai, although the highest estimates place the number of militants at no more than one thousand.
- Given the ongoing violence and conflict in the province, which has seen a rate of 39 terror attacks per month in 2017, potential rights abuses risk undermining the Egyptian state’s efforts to establish security in North Sinai (and throughout Egypt).
- United States law stipulates that none of the $1.3 billion in security assistance financing be provided to military units that engage in gross human rights violations; additionally, to ensure the promotion of security and stability in Egypt, the international community should encourage Egypt to abide by international law and best practices in counterinsurgency.
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has long been a locus for violence in Egypt, with militant activity predating the 2011 revolution, but with a steady and significant escalation in scale and scope of violence since mid-2013. The Egyptian military has responded with force, carrying out airstrikes and ground operations in North Sinai, as the state has enacted legislation against what it deems terror-related offenses and embarked on a public relations campaign to promote its efforts domestically and to the international community. Yet attacks continue, raising concerns about the manner in which Egypt is carrying out war on terror. A video showing what appears to be state-backed militiamen wearing military fatigues carrying out extrajudicial killings has stoked renewed alarm about the military’s actions in North Sinai, particularly with the current controversial counter-terrorism law and the media opacity in Sinai.
The following special briefing, produced by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy as part of its Egypt Security Watch project, analyzes the video in the context of Egypt’s security situation, with targeted recommendations for policymakers.
On April 20, 2017, a video was disseminated on social media that depicts state-backed militiamen wearing military fatigues executing a number of civilians in Sinai. The video appears to be shot on a mobile phone and was published through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mekameleen channel, which had also published “Sisileaks” (audio recordings of President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and others discussing Egypt’s Gulf patrons) throughout 2015.
It is unclear why the civilians were executed; in the video, a man reportedly linked to the military-supported Group 103 is seen interrogating a blindfolded man about his family and place of residence before proceeding to shoot him in the head with multiple rounds of ammunition. Images of the executed civilians match those published by the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesperson Tamer al-Refai on his Facebook page on December 6, 2016, in a post which claimed that Egyptian counter-terrorism forces killed eight armed militants and arrested four others in clashes. The pictures also appeared in earlier footage produced by the Ministry of Defense which was released on November 5, 2016. The posts included pictures of the three executed civilians with firearms placed strategically beside them, directly contradicting the content of the recent video and suggesting that the killings were staged to appear as if they had occurred during a firefight. The video also shows the presence of an American-made military vehicle, an M1113 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly known as a Humvee, being used to transport prisoners.
The leak comes only days after Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province,” released a propaganda video portraying the military as weak, inferior, and ineffective, and another video in which they show a child they claim was killed in a military air strike.
TERRORISM IN SINAI
Terror activity in the Sinai Peninsula ballooned after the military-backed ouster of President Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and continues to be a major obstacle to stability in Egypt. According to data collected by Egypt Security Watch, there have been 1,635 acts of terrorism in Sinai since July 2013. Terror incidents in the peninsula have grown gradually over the past two years in particular, with monthly rates increasing from just 12 attacks per month on average in 2014 to 36 per month in 2015 and 57 per month in 2016. Based on preliminary data compiled for the first quarter of 2017, there have been 39 attacks per month in North Sinai.
The bulk of this violence has been perpetrated by Islamic State affiliate Wilayat Sinai. In November 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an organization loosely connected to the al-Qaeda organization that carried out dozens of attacks on Egypt’s natural gas distribution infrastructure in Sinai, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, becoming the first of two branches of the group in Egypt. To date, the organization has claimed 726 acts of terrorism, or about 58 percent of all attacks carried out in Sinai since its formation. Until recently, a majority of Wilayat Sinai’s claimed activity targeted Egyptian security personnel. Since 2014, the group, which according to estimates from the United States and other governments, numbers between 500 and 1,000 fighters, claims to have killed 378 members of the Egyptian security forces.
COUNTER-TERROR OPERATIONS IN SINAI
In response to the increase in attacks in North Sinai, the military has also escalated its efforts there. Since mid-2013, 6,268 deaths were reported in military operations in North Sinai. Many of these were reported during the several phases of Operation Martyr’s Right that was conducted in late 2015: The first phase of the operation was meant to be kinetic strikes and the second to be a development phase, but three phases were announced and all were conducted in the same way, with air strikes, ground raids, and high casualty counts reported. No objectives were ever officially announced outside of the general goal to eradicate terrorism, which has not been successful. Similar activities have continued since that time, with the military regularly reporting the deaths of terrorists, including Wilayat Sinai leadership. The group has confirmed the death of its emir, Abu Duaa al-Ansary.
In January 2017, after an attack on a checkpoint killed eight policemen, security forces conducted a raid in which they claimed to have killed 10 of the perpetrators. Local residents, however, refuted the state’s allegations and claimed that the men had no affiliation with Wilayat Sinai and had been apprehended by police months earlier, so should have been in police custody at the time of their deaths. The incident sparked a popular protest in Arish, but to date there has been no further investigation into any potential wrongdoing.
In July 2015 Egypt passed a controversial counter-terrorism law, which explicitly criminalizes reporting facts or figures other than those that the state has officially released. The law imposes heavy penalties (up to two years in prison) on individuals who publish “false information” about terror attacks or statistics that contradict the government’s official line. Journalists have also described facing threats in conducting their investigations, making the climate next to impossible to carry out independent reporting.
Restrictions on independent media and the absence of other independent monitoring bodies have resulted in a media landscape dominated by Egyptian security sources (whether through official reporting bodies or statements to press) and by the terror groups themselves, particularly the Islamic State.
“Through a number of repressive measures implemented under the guise of countering terrorism, the Egyptian government has snuffed out essentially all independent media in Sinai, crafting its own version of reality and leaving the only remaining non-military narrative to be filled by those who are least deterred by its legal prescriptions. Even for researchers like us who follow these groups around the clock, we have no way of discerning what is and what is not reality, as farfetched as some of the group’s (or the military’s) claims may sometimes be.”
— Nancy Okail and Jake Greene, “ The Dueling Narratives of the Islamic State and the Egyptian State,” April 2017
UNITED STATES-EGYPT SECURITY RELATIONSHIP
The United States has provided Egypt with substantial annual military assistance since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. The Obama administration temporarily halted the delivery of several large scale military equipment shipments in October 2013 (after the clearing of the Raba’a al-Adaweya protest camp) and promised to reorient Egypt’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to better align with Egypt’s and the United States’ shared interests. Aid was restored to Egypt in 2015 at similar levels as to those before 2013.
The Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations ( House, Senate) include $1.3 billion in FMF to Egypt, though that legislation has not yet been passed; the draft legislation for Fiscal Year 2018 has not yet been released. Egypt has used U.S. military assistance to purchase U.S. defense equipment including F-16s, Hellfire Missiles, M1A1 Abrams Tanks, and Apache, Blackhawk, and Chinook Helicopters. Congressional appropriations legislation includes two “Leahy Laws” requiring the State and Defense Departments (Section 620M of Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and 10 U.S.C. §2249e respectively) to investigate recipients of foreign military assistance. The laws prohibit assistance to any security forces unit which has committed gross violations of human rights (GVHR), which include “torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, and rape.” However, a Government Accountability Office report published in April of 2016 found that the State and Defense Departments had been unable to fulfill all requirements for end-use monitoring and human rights vetting in Egypt.
The actions of the individuals in the video sound loud alarm bells, as they indicate a potential war crime based on Geneva Convention standards and violate the Egyptian Constitution’s protection of citizens’ rights to due process. Even if the men were acting on credible intelligence that the individuals targeted in the video were indeed involved in carrying out acts of terror, their position indicates that they are clearly noncombatants at the time of their execution, as defined by law. The Geneva Convention thus requires that they be treated humanely; furthermore, Article 96 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution establishes the presumption of innocence.
The leaked video also more widely calls into question the ways in which the Egyptian military has been conducting its operations in North Sinai. The number of deaths reported in military operations over the past years greatly exceeds even the highest bounds of the estimates of the number of fighters in the province, raising doubts about the validity of either the figures reported or the identity of the individuals killed. Without a credible investigation into not only this instance, but also the many other instances of reported casualties, doubt will remain as to whether or not the military is indeed targeting its operations to identify and apprehend terrorists, and whether it exercises proper discretion in the use of force.
The most effective methods of countering insurgency hold to the principles that all possible efforts should be made to avoid the loss of civilian life in military operations. TIMEP has previously raised concerns about the Egyptian military’s adherence to these standards:
“In North Sinai and elsewhere, collective punishment remains the government’s modus operandi. Scores of civilians have been implicated in sustained security campaign in the North Sinai, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned under terrorism laws, some for non-violent crimes. Anger at unjust imprisonment or death has fed calls for violent retribution, and provides individuals with little incentive to remain peaceful.”
— TIMEP, “Egypt’s Rising Security Threat,” November 2015
Thus, the failure to respect noncombatant life and to adhere to international and domestic legal obligations not only suggests egregious disrespect for human rights, but is also counterproductive to Egypt’s own efforts to establish safety and security in the North Sinai and throughout the country. Particularly at a time of heightened concern about the Islamic State’s activity in Egypt and recent spillover into the mainland (as was seen with the recent twin Palm Sunday bombings), the military’s actions risk bolstering terror groups’ narratives about the illegitimacy of the state.
The international community seems to have embraced the Egyptian state narrative of success in combating terror in the country, or at least its justification of repressive measures to this end. Yet, the recent warming of relations between the United States and Egypt, especially as noted by Secretary of Defense General James Mattis’ expression of “confidence” in military-to-military relations, still require that the United States take an active interest in the actions of its Egyptian counterpart. Likewise, recent cultural and security agreements between Egypt and Germany, the continued sale of French, German, British, and Italian weapons to Egypt, and a number of European business investments demonstrate European partners’ great interest in Egypt’s stability. Thus, given Egypt’s tenuous security, the international community should make every effort to see that Egypt engages in counter-terror efforts effectively and within the bounds of domestic and international law.
1. Egyptian authorities must conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the extrajudicial killings of civilians. This includes a public and fair trial that respects the inherent rights of all suspects and complies with both domestic law and international obligations.
2. The Egyptian government must ensure that rule of law and due process rights are guaranteed for all terror suspects; execution of non-combatants violates the Geneva Convention while Article 96 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution guarantees innocence until proven guilty. Not only are the practices shown in the video illegal, but the violation of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, detainment, and destruction of property alienates local communities and makes them more likely to side with violent extremists.
3. The Egyptian government’s repressive measures on the media such as the Counter-terrorism Law, which yields a media opacity permitting inaccurate reports on military operations, must be rolled back to reduce civilian casualties and hold authorities accountable for potential violations.
4. U.S. foreign military assistance to Egypt must be more effective and within the bounds of domestic law. This requires defense equipment to be catered to an insurgency rather than a conventional threat. Disbursement of assistance must be contingent upon the stipulations of the Leahy Law and allow for the U.S. government to conduct the end-use monitoring and human rights vetting necessary to prevent and hold Egypt accountable for GVHRs. Similarly, E.U. partners engaging in military cooperation and arms sales with Egypt should ensure that equipment is tailored to the threat at hand and not used in practices that violate basic human rights.
5. Egyptian authorities should revise their public relations campaign to refrain from ostentatious or patently false claims meant to galvanize support for the state’s counter-terrorism activity or undermine the trustworthiness of political opponents, as this diminishes the credibility of the state and its claims. As noted in conflicting reports on the recent attack on South Sinai’s St. Catherine’s monastery, such claims hold the potential to reduce confidence in government reports and credibility.