(Beirut) – The Egyptian armed forces and army-aligned militias battling an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in Egypt’s North Sinai appear to have committed new extrajudicial executions of suspected militants during recent fighting, Human Rights Watch said today.
Videos and photographs circulated primarily on social media groups representing army-affiliated militias in July and August 2022 show three extrajudicial executions of shackled or wounded men in custody that violate international humanitarian law and would amount to war crimes.
“Army-affiliated militias in Egypt’s North Sinai have been circulating videos apparently to brag about executing shackled men in captivity,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The pervasive lack of accountability for largely lawless military operations in North Sinai over the past decade have fostered such atrocities.”
Egyptian authorities should immediately open a transparent and impartial investigation into the alleged abuses, and appropriately punish those responsible. Egypt’s partners should suspend their security and military assistance because of the government’s failure over many years to provide accountability for grave abuses until such abuses end and perpetrators are held accountable.
Human Rights Watch analyzed three videos related to two killings published on Facebook and TikTok pages owned by the army-aligned militia groups and their members, in addition to a fourth video and three photographs provided by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, a local human rights group, related to the third killing. Human Rights Watch verified authenticity of the videos, which indicate that members of both the militias and the army itself were responsible for the killings.
The videos appear to be recent but Human Rights Watch could not verify the exact timing and sites of the killings. The videos emerged online for the first time between July 1 and August 19, and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights identified three areas in North and mid-North Sinai where the killings might have occurred.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed and analyzed dozens of photographs and videos published by the same militia groups and other self-proclaimed members of such groups on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and TikTok. Many of the videos and photographs show armed militia members on the road to battle sites to or during combat. Human Rights Watch geolocated two sites that appear in the videos in relation to recent fighting reported in August closer to the Suez Canal. The army-aligned fighters shown wore civilian or mixed camouflage and civilian clothes and many used 4X4 trucks and cars, which are prohibited in much of Sinai without army permission under two prime ministerial decrees from 2015 and 2016. Some of these cars have the logs or slogans of those militias printed on their hoods.
In many of these videos, militia groups appear to be accompanied by one or several army vehicles or helicopters and uniformed soldiers and officers. Some footage was accompanied by the statement: “permission granted for publishing.” Some photographs show corpses, supposedly of ISIS fighters, with militiamen posing next to the corpses. Such photographs, given the pervasive degradation of the rule of law in North Sinai and years of abuses, raise serious questions of whether these were the bodies of men killed in possible extrajudicial executions, Human Rights Watch said.
Videos of the Killings
An 18-second video of one of the killings was posted on August 19 on a Facebook page, “Al-Mrayeh News,” apparently referring to al-Mrayeh village in Baer al-Abd in central North Sinai. The only text says: “victory is close Inshallah.” In the video, a young man in a traditional white garment and dark trousers kneels in a desert area with his hands tied behind his back.
He speaks in a Sinai dialect to his executioners, who can be heard but do not appear in the video. He says: “Have mercy.” The executioners tell him to turn around and fire at him immediately. “He is not dead yet,” one of them says while the young man is on the ground with his legs shaking reflexively. Another round of bullets follows, and one of the executioners orders: “Untie his hands.”
The same Facebook page published another 32-second video on August 17 with the title “Liquidating a Takfiri” (a pejorative term for ISIS members). The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights also provided Human Rights Watch with the same video, without the song embedded in the Facebook version, and said it was circulated on a WhatsApp group run by militia fighters on August 16.
The video shows a young man, or possibly a teenage boy, lying on the ground in a rocky area in a semi-conscious state. He is bloody and missing his right arm, apparently as a result of recent fighting. His executioner, whose face does not appear in the video, questions him. He says his name is Anas and that he belongs to al-Tyaha tribe. After that, the executioner fires a round of bullets from an AK variant assault rifle, apparently killing him instantly.
At the end of the video, the foot and leg of the executioner appear briefly, showing army boots and camouflage trousers. The executioner, while questioning the detainee, appears to be speaking in a non-Sinai Egyptian dialect. Others around him, who are not visible, call him “pasha” (a term typically used to address army officers). This all strongly suggests that an army officer carried out the unlawful killing.
After shooting, the executioner tells the others, “Evacuate immediately,” and then repeats, “the weapon, the weapon, the weapon.” Another voice instructs others to collect a weapon that does not appear in the video, indicating the group included three or more men.
The videos of the two executions also appeared as segments in another longer militia propaganda video on another pro-army Facebook page called Shibana al-Youm on August 19.
The third extrajudicial killing was recorded on video and subsequent photos. The video shows a captive man sitting in an army vehicle speaking to a group of militiamen and army soldiers outside the vehicle, some of them using their phones to take videos of him. The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights sent Human Rights Watch a copy of the video and said it was first published on July 1 by the Sinai Tribes Union, one of the largest North Sinai army-aligned militia groups, but was subsequently deleted. Human Rights Watch also found the 90-second video with the Twitter handle of the tribe’s group embedded, republished on July 1 on a Telegram group supporting ISIS. Toward the end of his exchange with the militiamen, the captive said: “If you want to kill me, kill me!” and a militia member responded: “Who said we’re going to kill you?”
The same captive next appears dead, stained with dry blood, on the ground in a desert area in two photographs published on the same day by two Facebook groups and carrying the stamp of the two groups, the Baer al-Abd Tribes Union and “Tribes Affairs,” which refers to an army-aligned militia working with the tribes affairs office in the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance department. The Baer al-Abd group describes itself on Facebook as “a tribal combat team working to purge Sinai from extremists.” The photos were later deleted from both Facebook groups.
Since July 2013, Egyptian military operations have escalated in North Sinai against “Wilayat Sina,” a group that pledged allegiance to ISIS. The region has effectively become a closed military zone where independent reporting is prohibited. Since mid-2020, ISIS has apparently lost much of its stronghold in North Sinai. Militias supervised and supported by the Egyptian military have increasingly carried out many operations in desert and mountainous areas to eliminate the remaining ISIS militants in their hideouts. Human Rights Watch documented that these groups consist of tribal leaders and local men, some of whom had been operating alongside the army for years without previously being involved in combat operations. The Egyptian government has never officially announced the involvement of local militias in their operations even though such involvement is sometimes celebrated on popular talk shows and soap operas as well as unofficial pamphlets the army apparently distributes in North Sinai. The social media accounts representing these groups have also mushroomed.
Human Rights Watch previously documented that hostilities in North Sinai, with sustained fighting between organized forces, have risen to the level of a non-international armed conflict, and that warring sides have violated the laws of war as well as committed human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has also documented that in mainland Egypt, Interior Ministry security forces have in recent years killed dozens of alleged terrorists in extrajudicial executions.
The right to life is an inherent human right that cannot be compromised, even in times of armed conflict or state of emergency. Summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions are prohibited under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Egypt is a state party to all three.
“Egypt’s international partners should condition weapons sales to Egypt on accountability and ending abuses,” Coogle said. “Their failure to speak out or take action against relentless atrocities doubtlessly emboldens Egyptian government forces to commit war crimes with abandon.”