(Beirut) – Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The security forces may have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared the men and then staged a counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.

A Human Rights Watch investigation relying on multiple sources of evidence including documents, interviews with relatives, and an edited video of the purported raid made public by the authorities suggests that police arrested at least some of the men months before the alleged gunfight at a house in North Sinai and that the raid itself was staged.

Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017.

“These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.”

The killings appear to fit a pattern of abuses against civilians by both military and internal security forces who are fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) under the largest deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Fighting in North Sinai has left hundreds dead since 2013, including civilians, security force members, and alleged ISIS fighters. The ISIS affiliate, which calls itself Sinai Province, has killed scores of civilians, targeting many either for alleged collaboration with the authorities or because they were Christians.

Journalists and human rights groups are rarely able to investigate frequent and credible reports of abuse because the government denies them access to North Sinai.

These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

 
On January 13, the Interior Ministry claimed in a statement that its counterterrorism forces had tracked a group of suspected ISIS fighters to an abandoned house in al-Arish, a town on the northern Sinai coast, earlier that day and were preparing to raid the house when they came under fire. According to the statement, the troops returned fire and killed all 10 suspects inside. The ministry named six of the dead men and accused them of participating in killings and other attacks on security forces, some of which had been claimed by ISIS, but did not identify the other four men.
 
That same day, the ministry also released a short video purporting to show the raid itself. The video was posted on YouTube with the title, The death of 10 terrorist elements in an exchange of fire with security forces in North Sinai. The heavily edited clip shows at least eight commandos approaching a building, two of them firing at a man on the ground outside, and six dead men in civilian clothes lying in various rooms inside the building, surrounded by weapons, fresh pools of blood, and walls with bullet holes.
 
Human Rights Watch spoke with relatives of three of the dead men – Ahmed Rashid, Mansour Gam’a, and Mohamed Ayoub – and a lawyer who is representing the families of Rashid and a fourth man, Abd al-Aty Abd al-Aty. All said that the Interior Ministry’s security forces had arrested the men without warrants in October and November 2016, months before the alleged January raid took place.
 
The killings caused outrage among citizens of al-Arish and rare protests against the Interior Ministry during some of the men’s funerals. Leaders of local clans met on January 14 to form a “popular committee” and issued a list of demands, including the immediate release of anyone held without charge, the resignation of North Sinai’s representatives in parliament, and holding to account those responsible for the killings. Hossam al-Rifai, a member of parliament for North Sinai, called for the creation of a government fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.
 
Salah Salam, a member of the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, told the Aswat Masriya news service on January 15 that the names of the six slain men had been on a list of 650 people allegedly being held without charge in North Sinai, which local residents had earlier asked him to deliver to a presidential pardon committee. Salam told Human Rights Watch on March 16 that he did not have a copy of the list that he sent to the pardon committee, but that those who compiled it told him that the names of the six men were included, and that the government must investigate 
 
The families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty sent telegrams to the authorities inquiring about the two men shortly after their arrests and gave Human Rights Watch photos of receipts showing the dates they had sent the telegrams in October and November. The telegram receipts seen by Human Rights Watch contain serial numbers that could verify to investigators when they were sent. The two families also filed a joint complaint to the prosecutor general asking him to investigate their relatives’ deaths. The authorities did not respond to any of these complaints or requests for information.
 

Friends Ahmed Rashid, 24, (left) and Abd al-Aty Abd al-Aty, 25, (right) were arrested by the police about one week apart in October 2016, relatives and a family lawyer said. 

 
Relatives of Gam’a and Ayoub said they felt too intimidated by security forces to complain or pursue legal redress. Yehia Ayoub, the lawyer representing the families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty, told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry officials had contacted some of the men’s relatives to tell them to drop their efforts, and that in late February and early March, police arrested two cousins of Rashid and a cousin and two other relatives of Abd al-Aty to pressure their families to drop the issue. Human Rights Watch is not publishing the names of the family members out of concern for their safety.
 
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the public prosecution office have opened an investigation into the deaths, the relatives and lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The Interior Ministry’s statement claimed that security forces had conducted the raid after receiving permission from prosecutors.

“In addition to a prompt and thorough investigation, the Egyptian government should open North Sinai to journalists, human rights investigators, and aid groups,” Stork said. “For years now, North Sinai has been a black hole.”

Doubts Cast on Government Account

Independent observers are rarely allowed to investigate the ongoing conflict in North Sinai, which the government treats as a closed military zone and where curfew hours and a state of emergency have been in place since October 2014. Egyptian journalists who have reported from North Sinai have faced prosecution, as have analysts who have written about the conflict. Ismail al-Iskandrani, a researcher who reported on Islamist movements and developments in the Sinai Peninsula, has been detained pending trial since November 29, 2015, on charges of spreading false news and aiding an illegal group.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the Interior Ministry’s video and other documents provided by the families, including burial forms and photographs of three of the men’s bodies taken at a morgue. Human Rights Watch also consulted with a forensic expert and several military experts regarding the photos and the video of the raid.

Two military experts consulted by Human Rights Watch said that certain elements of the video led them to doubt its authenticity, including a bright floodlight that illuminated the commandos as they approached the house and the commandos’ behavior during the raid, which did not indicate that they felt under threat.

Stefan Schmitt, the director of the international forensic program at Physicians for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that the video was too heavily edited to be taken as a credible depiction of the authorities’ story and that the positioning of the bodies and blood inside the house raised the suspicion that at least one of the bodies had been moved prior to the video taping. Sutures on at least two of the bodies photographed in the morgue indicated that autopsies were performed and that there should be autopsy reports, he said. Ayoub, the lawyer representing the families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have not provided the families with such reports.

Rashid had recently graduated from a technical institute, was employed driving a taxi, and had gotten married about two months before his arrest, his family said.


Ayoub and the relatives of Rashid told Human Rights Watch that they had viewed the bodies of Rashid and Abd al-Aty in the morgue and that both appeared to have been shot once in the head. Both they and a relative of Gam’a also described reddened areas on the feet and hands of three of the bodies that they believed were signs of the use of electric shocks and cigarette burns, but Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the cause of these marks or the existence of bullet wounds.

 
Relatives of Ayoub and Gam’a also said that two former detainees had approached the families separately to say they saw the men at different times, three weeks after their disappearance, inside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency in al-Arish. The families said they were unable to confirm those accounts.

The relatives all said that they had learned of the men’s killings from the news and that the authorities had not contacted them. A local political activist who is coordinating the Arish “popular committee” said that the only response from the authorities had been to release about three dozen illegally detained people in North Sinai.

Human Rights Watch sent letters by email to the Interior Ministry and prosecutor general on March 6, inquiring about the families’ claims and whether the authorities had opened any investigation. Neither has responded.

Analysis of Statement and Video of Interior Ministry

The roughly one-and-a-half-minute video posted on YouTube by the Interior Ministry on the day of the alleged raid repeated a statement released the same day on the ministry’s Facebook page. The statement identified a man named Ahmed Mahmoud Yousef Abd al-Qader as an alleged commander with the local ISIS affiliate whom the ministry blamed for organizing “terrorist groups” and instructing them to carry out a string of attacks, including a coordinated assault on two police checkpoints in al-Arish just four days earlier that left eight police officers and one civilian dead.

After “intensive follow-up field operations,” the ministry statement said, its forces were able to identify some of the alleged ISIS fighters involved in the January checkpoint attacks. The ministry claimed that the attackers had been moving frequently between various hiding places, but relatives of Ayoub, Gam’a, and Rashid told Human Rights Watch that police had arrested the three men at their homes. Far from living as fugitives, they said, Rashid had married two months before his arrest and Gam’a lived with his wife and frequently visited a doctor with her to seek treatment for infertility.

The ministry said that counterterrorism forces tracked the men to an abandoned “chalet” near al-Arish’s Fourth Police Department. On January 13, the counterterrorism forces began their raid on the building, but fighters inside “fired a hail of bullets toward them, trying to escape,” the statement said. The commandos “dealt with the sources of fire,” killing all 10 men inside the building. The statement did not mention any casualties among the counterterrorism forces.

 

Still from a video published by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The video shows commandos stealthily approaching a building. But military experts said the bright, white light illuminating the commandos during their approach was one indication that the raid was staged.

 
The purported video of the raid begins by showing what appear to be at least eight members of the counterterrorism forces wearing body armor and carrying small arms approaching the outside of a red brick, multi-story building. The men approach slowly, apparently to maintain stealth, but the entire scene is illuminated by a bright, white light.
 
A Human Rights Watch researcher who served as an infantryman and scout sniper in the US Army and who has experience with special forces and night raids said that such lighting during an actual raid, especially when the counterterrorism troops were moving slowly, would be “extremely inept and tactically unsound,” exposing the commandos to danger. An outside expert with combat experience who also served in the US army said that these first moments of the video resembled a training exercise.
 
After about 12 seconds, the video cuts to what appears to be a different location outside the building. Two members of the counterterrorism forces are shown firing at a man wearing civilian clothes who appears to be kneeling or falling to the ground three meters in front of them. Simultaneously, a third commando can be seen to the men’s right shining his flashlight into a room through a doorway.
 

Military experts said this still from the Interior Ministry video appeared to show that the commandos had secured the area before shooting the man. A third commando can be seen entering a room through an exterior door. Experts said that a commando taking part in an active raid, with shooting nearby, would not enter a room without backup, and that this was an indication that the raid was staged.

 
Both the Human Rights Watch researcher with military experience and an active-duty officer in the Colombian army with combat experience whom Human Rights Watch consulted said that the tactics displayed during this moment in the video were also unsound, and did not reflect how such forces would behave during a real raid. A commando who anticipated a threat while entering a room would not inspect the room with a flashlight without someone to support him while other commandos were opening fire on a threat just a few feet away, the Human Rights Watch researcher said.
 
Both experts also questioned the shooting itself, noting that the man being shot appeared to be kneeling or already on the ground and that the video, which shows his body from a closer perspective seconds later, reveals a handgun tucked into his pants. The fact that he was shot in this manner and at close range suggests that the counterterrorism forces had secured the area before shooting him, the active-duty officer said. The Human Rights Watch researcher said that commandos would probably only approach a suspect that closely if they were trying to arrest him.
 
After the shooting incident, the video shows different rooms, apparently inside the building, and what appear to be six bodies, as well as blood pooling on the floor and weapons lying next to the bodies or leaning against the walls. Schmitt, the forensic expert, said that the pools of blood shown on the floor of at least one room, and the bodies lying on the bed next to the blood, raised the suspicion that at least one of the bodies had been moved prior to the video taping. While this would not indicate, in itself, that the raid was staged, Schmitt said, the video could not be taken as credible evidence of what the ministry said occurred.
The active-duty officer said that the close positioning of the bodies next to one another, as well as the positioning of the guns, indicated that the alleged fighters had not taken up defensive positions with their weapons, as they probably would have if they had opened fire on approaching commandos during a raid, or been alerted to the raid by the bright lighting or shooting of the man outside.
 
Accounts by Relatives and the Lawyer
 
Ahmed Yousef Mohamed Rashid
 
In its January 13 statement, the Interior Ministry accused Rashid of “involvement in the assassination of a number of civilians for their alleged collaboration with security forces.” Rashid’s wife and another relative told Human Rights Watch that Rashid, 24, had recently graduated from a technical institute, was employed driving a taxi, and had married two months before his arrest on October 17.

When police arrested Ahmed Rashid, 24, from his family home on October 17, 2016, they destroyed much of the family’s personal property, including the bed, refrigerator, television, toilet, stove, and glass cupboards. 


On that day, Rashid’s relative said, dozens of men wearing uniforms with “police” written on them and other men in civilian clothes raided their home in the Samran neighborhood of al-Arish and arrested Rashid without showing a warrant. The authorities had not previously wanted Rashid for any crime, and the relative said they did not know why police came for him.

“It was October 17 around noon,” she said. “Suddenly the door slammed, and I felt terrified when I saw the [security] forces and couldn’t talk.”

Rashid’s relative said that the security forces split up and entered an apartment on the ground floor and Rashid’s on the second floor. They took Rashid into an armored vehicle for a moment and then returned with him.

“I asked [an officer] what was going on but he didn’t answer,” his relative said. “I had to go out but I was hearing voices. They hit him while his grandmother was standing there. She yelled at them: ‘Shame, shame!’”

Rashid’s relative said that neighbors later told her that there had been at least 15 armored vehicles and police vans outside her home during the raid. The security forces searched the two apartments and destroyed most of the family’s property, including the bed, refrigerator, television, toilet, stove, and glass cupboards. Police also took three mobile phones and about 2,000 Egyptian pounds (US$119), the relative said. The family sent Human Rights Watch photos of the damage.

Rashid’s wife, who was one-month pregnant at the time, yelled at the police that these were new furnishings and that she was recently married. An officer told her, “Come, see your things while they’re being destroyed,” she said. Another officer grabbed her and pushed her against the wall twice. She said that she later suffered a miscarriage, but Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain any medical documentation.

Two days later, security forces returned to their street and arrested more residents. When Rashid’s wife approached the officers to ask them about Rashid, one of them told her, “He will never see the street again. Find another husband.”

Three days after his arrest, Rashid’s family sent telegrams to the justice and interior ministers and the prosecutor general to inquire about Rashid’s whereabouts but received no response.

The family of Rashid said they sent a telegram to the prosecutor general on October 30, 2016, two weeks after his arrest, to find out what had happened to him. A receipt they provided to Human Rights Watch shows the handwritten date and a stamped serial number at the top that could help investigators verify that Rashid had been arrested before his death. 

On January 13, the day of the alleged raid, Rashid’s family had no internet connection, but friends called and told them that they had seen Rashid name in the statement.

“I didn’t believe it,” Rashid’s relative said. “I thought maybe it was a false statement or something.”

 
When Rashid’s relative saw his body in a morgue in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal 124 miles west of al-Arish, they saw what they believed was one bullet wound in his head. The family had also recognized Rashid in the Interior Ministry’s video as one of the men shown dead inside the house, though the green pants and black jacket he is shown wearing in the video were not the clothes in which he was arrested.

Rashid’s relative said that he had been close friends with one of the other six men named in the Interior Ministry’s statement and killed in the alleged raid, Abd al-Aty Ali Abd al-Aty al-Deeb, who was arrested about nine days before Rashid.
 

Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Ayoub
 

Mohamed Ayoub, 23, was working as a driver when police arrested him after seeing him walking on the roof of his home in al-Arish one night in November 2016, his family said. Authorities in police and military offices around al-Arish denied holding Ayoub, and the family heard nothing about him until the Interior Ministry announced he had been killed on January 13, 2017.

The Interior Ministry accused Ayoub of participating in the July 2016 killing of Col. Ahmed Rashad, the deputy warden of al-Qosaima Police Station in Sinai, and a number of other attacks on the police. A relative of Ayoub’s who asked to remain anonymous said that Ayoub was a 23-year-old driver whom the police arrested on November 26. Ayoub was not interested in politics and was scheduled to be drafted into the army soon, the relative said.
 
The relative, who witnessed the arrest, said security forces came during the night without a warrant and destroyed the door of Ayoub’s home in the Masaeed area of al-Arish. He said that the police had come to the house after seeing Ayoub walking on the roof. Ayoub felt scared and went downstairs when he saw the security forces coming, and a policeman shouted at him to come out. When Ayoub asked for a moment to have a drink of water, they shouted at him and pushed him into an armored vehicle, the relative said. The relative added that when Ayoub’s mother asked an officer if she could put proper clothes on during the arrest, the officer yelled at her that he would shoot if she moved.
 
A police officer ordered Ayoub’s father, his younger brother and two uncles to stand against a wall, the relative said, and told the police there to “kill whoever moved.” When the police were leaving, one policeman asked his commander what to do with them, pointing at Ayoub’s father and younger brother. The officer told him to put them into another armored vehicle, and they were taken to al-Arish Second Police Station, where they spent five days in custody, the relative said.
 
After their release, Ayoub’s father and brother asked about Ayoub in all the police and military detention centers they knew in the area, but the authorities denied holding him. About a month after Ayoub’s disappearance, a man came to the family home and told them that he had seen Ayoub in the National Security Agency headquarters in al-Arish and that Ayoub was being tortured with electric shock. Ayoub’s relative told Human Rights Watch that he did not know the man and could not verify his story.
 
The family heard nothing about Ayoub from the authorities until the Interior Ministry’s January 13 statement. The relative said that the family recognized Ayoub’s body in the Interior Ministry video but took no legal action because they felt intimidated. The police told them to sign a paper stating that Ayoub had been killed by a gunshot without further details. The authorities have not opened an investigation, the relative said.
 
“We went to receive the body from Ismailia’s morgue,” he said. “When I saw the body, I felt a knife in my heart. I’m afraid … and I can’t sleep. I’m afraid someone is going to raid our home when I’m sleeping.”
 
Mansour Mohamed Soliman Gam’a
 
The Interior Ministry statement accused Gam’a, 28, of stealing transport vehicles and “boobytrapping” them for use in ISIS attacks. A relative, who requested anonymity, said Gam’a was a 27-year-old driver, married with no children, and that Gam’a had not known the other men.
 
The relative said that Gam’a’s wife called him around midnight on October 17, the same day as Rashid’s arrest, to tell him that Interior Ministry forces had raided their home and arrested Gam’a without a warrant. Gam’a’s wife told the relative that she asked the police where they were taking him and that they told her only that he would return home after two days of interrogation.

Mansour Gam’a, 28, was arrested on October 17, 2016. His wife and other family members were too afraid of repercussions from the security forces to file any legal complaints related to his death. 


“Here [in North Sinai] you can’t breathe,” the relative said, describing the way security forces treat civilians. “You can’t ask [officers] to present an arrest warrant.”
 
The relative said that a friend of the family who was arrested about 20 days after Gam’a visited the family after his release and told them that he had spent about 15 days in detention with Gam’a in the National Security Agency headquarters in al-Arish.
 
“We did not hire a lawyer or file any complaints because of the circumstances,” the relative said. “Even a lawyer won’t be able to get us our rights. Only God will get us our rights.”

He said that he had inquired about Gam’a in some police stations but that they had denied that Gam’a was there. The family did not receive any information about Gam’a until the Interior Ministry statement on January 13.

The relative said that anyone involved in the violent acts alleged by the Interior Ministry would not have stayed at their home like Gam’a, who had wanted to have children and sought regular treatment for his infertility.

“We did not send any faxes [to the authorities] … We thought he would go back home soon because he is a straight, clean guy,” the relative said. “We didn’t know it would reach this level.”

Abd al-Aty Ali Abd el-Aty al-Deeb

Abd al-aty Abd al-Aty, 25, was arrested on October 8, 2016, his family lawyer said. The family filed a complaint to the prosecutor general accusing National Security officers of killing him, but the police have arrested three of Abd al-Aty’s relatives to pressure them to drop their legal efforts, the lawyer said. 

The Interior Ministry accused Abd al-Aty, 25, of involvement in the killing of Mohamed Mostafa Ayad, an engineer who had performed work for the armed forces and was kidnapped by unknown armed men in September 2016 and publicly shot to death five days later in a main square of al-Arish, according to media reports and activists on Facebook.

Ayoub, the lawyer who is representing Abd al-Aty’s and Rashid’s families, said that security forces arrested Abd al-Aty on October 8 and that the families had retained him about two weeks later.

Ayoub was at the Ismailia morgue when some of the men’s bodies were delivered to their families, and he said that both Abd al-Aty and Rashid appeared to have been shot once in their heads. He also said he saw burns on Abd al-Aty’s body and bruising on the wrists that he believed were signs of handcuffs. Human Rights Watch viewed photos of the two bodies but could not independently confirm the existence of bullet wounds to the men’s heads. Schmitt, the forensic expert, said he could not confirm the cause of the marks, but that Abd al-Aty’s body appeared to have had a full autopsy.

Ayoub said that the authorities did not allow him to obtain a copy of the autopsy report and that he does not know what it stated. A one-page certificate from the Ismailia branch of the Health Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority, viewed by Human Rights Watch, stated that Abd al-Aty’s cause of death was “gunshots,” without further details.

Ayoub filed a complaint to prosecutors, also viewed by Human Rights Watch, on behalf of both Abd al-Aty’s and Rashid’s families a few days after their deaths, which accused Interior Ministry National Security officers in al-Arish of forcibly disappearing and killing the two men. Prosecutors have not responded, he said.