Mysterious Deaths and Forced Disappearances. This Is Egypt’s U.S.-Backed War on Terror.

A teacher was arrested and then turned up dead in a shootout — one of an increasing number of suspicious deaths in Egyptian counterterrorism operations.

Egyptian men partake in a wake for the victims of a terrorist attack in 'Deir El-Garnouse, near Al-Minya, Egypt, 27 May 2017. 28 coptic Christians died when fighters of the terror militia group Islamic State, or Daesh opened fire on their bus. Photo by: Roger Anis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Egyptian men partake in a wake for the victims of a terrorist attack in 'Deir El-Garnouse, near Al-Minya, Egypt, 27 May 2017. Photo: Roger Anis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Mohamed Abdelsatar, a 44-year-old schoolteacher, arrived to work in Egypt’s Beheira province on April 9, 2017. He signed in to the official roll at 8 a.m., having prepared a lesson on Christianity in Egypt — a timely topic given that sectarian attacks by the Islamic State have killed and injured hundreds throughout Egypt since last December.

But by 10:30 that morning, Abdelsatar had been apprehended, escorted off school grounds by men in plainclothes, and ordered into an unmarked vehicle. Next to a blank space where his sign-out should have been, the official roll read simply: “Arrested from the institute while working.”

For weeks after his abduction, Abdelsatar’s wife and colleagues from the school attempted to discern his location, sending letters to any relevant government officials. The family could only assume that he had been picked up by Egypt’s secret police, the Egyptian Homeland Security, who are infamous for apprehending individuals in this manner.

“We neither know the party that arrested him nor the location of his arrest to date,” the letters read: “Kindly release the public prosecution record under your supervision and investigate the incident … as we are yet to be informed of what exactly happened to him.” No one ever responded.

It was nearly a month later when Egypt’s Ministry of Interior announced that Abdelsatar had died in a counterterror operation targeting Hassm, a domestic group that has carried out regular attacks on government targets. In a Facebook post on May 6, the ministry stated that Abdelsatar and another man, Abdallah Ragab Ali Abdel Halim, had opened fire on security forces during a raid in the city of Tanta — more than 100 kilometers away from the school where Adbelsatar worked — and that police had responded, killing them.

There was no mention of Abdelsatar’s initial apprehension from the school, nor explanation of how the schoolteacher may have come to join a terrorist group. No documentation or notification was presented to the school or to his family, and their letters remained unanswered.

Adbelsatar’s disappearance is not the first of its kind. In the past year, hundreds of Egyptian citizens have reportedly been forcibly disappeared, victims of Egypt’s U.S.-backed war on terror. Like Abdelsatar, some of them have then been pronounced dead in a later counterterrorism operation, with the official statements on the deaths following a similar formula: During a security raid, assailants opened fire, and the security personnel responded in kind, killing them all.

This spate of disappearances and apparent extrajudicial killings raises grave concerns for the rule of law and human rights in Egypt, and threatens to undermine efforts to mitigate the extremist violence that persists in the country. Despite this, U.S. officials seem committed to providing support for Egypt’s efforts, both materially — through the continuation of over $1 billion in annual security assistance — and politically, with recently proposed measures to designate groups that are fighting against the Egyptian state as international terrorists.

With its highly secretive and feared military and intelligence agencies, and increasingly strict control of the media, the Egyptian government is trying to convince its citizens — and the international community — that it is succeeding in an existential battle against terrorist foes. In fact, many of those killed or disappeared seem to be political opponents, activists, or ordinary citizens. Even where links to violent groups may indeed exist, the perpetrators are often met with due process infringements, torture, and even execution.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and of ousted president Mohamed Morsi are detained by Egyptian security during a rally in the port city of Alexandria on  November 4, 2013.  Egypt's deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi went on trial in a Cairo courthouse over protester deaths, raising fears of new bloodshed four months after the army ousted him. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and of ousted President Mohamed Morsi are detained by Egyptian security during a rally in the port city of Alexandria on Nov. 4, 2013.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Egypt’s war on terror was inaugurated after the military-backed overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. In a speech a few weeks later, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister at the time, blamed a wave of violence in the country on the ousted president and his supporters. He asked Egyptians to offer the army and police a mandate to combat terrorism. In December 2013, the Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization in Egypt. Sisi won the presidency in May 2014 with 96.9 percent of the vote and, ruling by executive decree in the absence of a parliament, passed sweeping anti-terror legislation. Since Sisi’s 2013 speech, nearly 25,000 people have been arrested for alleged crimes of terrorism. Many cases have no connection to any violent act, and many have been sentenced in mass trials.

Cases of extrajudicial killings like Abdelsatar’s are a relatively new phenomenon. Though thousands of alleged terrorists have been reported killed in military operations in Egypt’s North Sinai province (and to lesser extent, in its Western Desert), killings outside those isolated areas were once rarely seen.

“Extrajudicial execution has become a trend since the assassination of former public prosecutor Hisham Barakat in June 2015,” an Amnesty International researcher who investigated Abdelsatar’s case explained to The Intercept (the researcher requested anonymity for security reasons.) No one has ever claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed the prosecutor, though an investigative report by independent media outlet Mada Masr attributed it to a group of Muslim Brotherhood-linked youth. Since the attack, there has been a run of extrajudicial killings: At least 178 alleged terrorists killed in police raids, 110 of them in 2017.

Also new is an apparent shift in targeting: Prior to this year, the majority of counterterror operations reported outside of North Sinai were carried out against alleged Muslim Brotherhood members. Now two new groups have come into focus: Hassm and Liwa al-Thawra. Hassm is a terrorist group founded in 2016; the group claims that it was responsible for 16 attacks on Egyptian security forces and government officials, including the attempted assassinations of former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa and Assistant Prosecutor General Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, and a September attack on the Embassy of Myanmar, with no casualties. Liwa al-Thawra, whose social media content and branding are closely tied to Hassm, has been less active, claiming only three attacks since its formation in August 2016.

The Egyptian government frames them as new armed Brotherhood entities, and indeed, there appear to be links between the groups. The Muslim Brotherhood, fractured and with most of its leadership in prison or exile, has had a complicated relationship with violence. Though some leaders continue to insist on their message of nonviolence, others are not so clearcut, and some, particularly youth elements, have embraced violence outright. For its part, upon the death of former Muslim Brotherhood “Supreme Guide” Mohammed Mahdi Akef in September, Hassm issued a lengthy eulogy.

The Ministry of Interior reported its first action against Hassm on November 4, 2016, and the first reported killing in a shootout followed a month later. Since that date, 40 alleged Hassm members have been killed, Abdelsatar among them.

In the case of Abdelsatar, the Interior Ministry’s Facebook post claimed that he and Abdel Halim were “responsible for manufacturing and transporting IEDs” for Hassm and Liwa al-Thawra. Specifically, the Interior Ministry accused the two men of playing a role in an attack that killed a police officer and injured 15 others at a police training facility in Tanta on April 1. No further information was provided on their relationship to Liwa al-Thawra or Hassm.

Hassm responded by saying in a statement that the Ministry of Interior had fabricated the claims and that if the two men had belonged to them, Hassm would proudly acknowledge its martyrs. Liwa al-Thawra followed suit, denying that any members had been killed in security operations in recent months.

Amnesty International investigated Abdelsatar’s case, confirming his apprehension, but the group was unable to track down any official records on his arrest or release. What’s more, his corpse bore two gunshot wounds in the back, complicating the police account of a shootout.

What happened to Abdelsatar in the days before his death remains a mystery, and it’s unclear why the government targeted him.

But Amnesty noted that his was not the first death shrouded in such obscurity, presented without any explanation or evidence on the part of the Egyptian government. In the past year, at least 20 other individuals allegedly affiliated with Hassm were reportedly arrested or disappeared in the weeks leading up to counterterror operations in which they were supposedly killed. (Not all of the cases have been confirmed as credible. While at least nine of the reported disappearances were published by local media and rights groups before the announcement of the named individuals’ deaths, the absence of independent reporting and a hyper-polarized political climate makes the authenticity of some of these reports difficult to discern.)

Despite the fact that most of these deaths were announced as shootouts, police personnel reported casualties in only one of the operations. The Egypt researcher at Amnesty International explained to The Intercept that the similar descriptions, lack of investigation into the circumstances, and low police casualty numbers “are all indications that [extrajudicial execution] is a strategy” on the part of security forces.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis (C-L) and Egypt's Central Military Zone Commander General Ayman Abdelhamid Amer (C-R) stand for the playing of the US national anthem following Mattis' arrival to place a wreath at the memorial of the Unknown Soldier in Cairo on April 20, 2017. Mattis met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and top brass in Cairo, pledging support for the American ally on his first regional tour. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)

US Defense Secretary James Mattis (C-L) and Egypt’s Central Military Zone Commander General Ayman Abdelhamid Amer (C-R) stand for the playing of the US national anthem following Mattis’ arrival to place a wreath at the memorial of the Unknown Soldier in Cairo on April 20, 2017.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images

As the number of these cases has grown, so too has Washington’s interest in Brotherhood spinoff groups. A flurry of think pieces appeared in American news outlets probing the Brotherhood’s relationship to violent groups. On May 24, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a security message for U.S. citizens referencing a Hassm threat “suggesting some kind of unspecified action.” In fact, what the embassy interpreted as a potential action was really a public social media post hyping a new video that Hassm planned to release. How this was interpreted as a threat to U.S. citizens was not elucidated. Ironically, the security message prompted Hassm’s first mention of the United States; the following day, the group responded to the message by stating, in English, “To Foreigners in Egypt … We are the Resistance and we are not terrorist [sic].”

The increased American interest coincided with visits from top Egyptian officials to the United States, including Sisi himself. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came to Washington in February, and Sisi in April — his first trip to the United States since being elected in 2014. Three parliamentary delegations have also made the journey this year.

An initial priority was to have the Brotherhood designated a foreign terrorist organization in the United States; in January, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had introduced legislation to do just that. But the bill was dead in the water; strong arguments had been made against it in the media and inside the Beltway. The designation was too broad and risked ensnaring nonviolent political opposition, and it would have complicated relations with countries where Brotherhood-affiliated political parties hold elected office.

Seeing that a broad ban on the Muslim Brotherhood was unfeasible, congressional offices — with input from the Egyptian delegations — discussed stamping Hassm with a terrorist designation. A June letter from Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, recommended that the president “designate and sanction those groups that have historical linkages to the Muslim Brotherhood and today promote violence,” advocating for a designation under Section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224. This order, issued just after the September 11 attacks, was designed to provide a tool for the Treasury to use against those who posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security and interests. But its scope has steadily expanded to include groups unrelated to those involved with 9/11. Such a designation could provide a relatively swift path to declaring members of the group terrorists under U.S. law, authorizing financial scrutiny, property seizure, and sanction by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Of his proposal, Poe said, “In this situation, it is wiser to use a scalpel than an axe. This targeted approach will be more impactful and avoid potential unintended complications.”

In fact, actors like Hassm, while violent, have not presented a credible threat to U.S. national security, making a U.S. terrorist designation an overreach in its intended scope. What’s more, in order to implement the order, Treasury would need the names of individuals and entities to list, with identifying information — full names, dates of birth, bank account information – and this could open a path to cooperation with Egyptian counterparts to acquire the needed details. Given the Egyptians’ track record on intelligence gathering, rife with reports of confessions made under duress and regular cases of torture (this is a government widely accused of torturing to death a 27-year-old Italian Ph.D. student, Giulio Regeni), such a possibility may encourage illegal practices and rights abuse.

So far, nothing has come of Poe’s letter, and no legislation has been formally proposed. However, when reports emerged that Hassm had carried out an attack on October 20 that killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers and police, commentators renewed discussion of a terrorist designation for the group. Hassm’s claim to the attack was later discredited, but a high-level delegation of Egyptian political figures still used it to ask for support from the State Department and Congress for their war on terror.

Hassm is undoubtedly violent, and they and other similar actors do threaten the lives and livelihoods of many Egyptians — over 1,000 security forces and hundreds of civilians have been killed in politically motivated attacks in the country since 2013. It is clear that policymakers have a vested interest, and perhaps feel an ethical compulsion, to see a safe and stable Egypt.

But while a terrorist designation may show Cairo that it has friends in Washington, it is unclear how it would prevent violence from groups like Hassm and Liwa al-Thawra, who are not likely to be linked to the international financial networks that the Treasury could practically target. More worrying, amid potentially grave rights violations as in Abdelsater’s case, such a response from the United States may only encourage the pursuit of extrajudicial justice in Egypt’s war on terror.

Top photo: Egyptian men partake in a wake for the victims of a terrorist attack in Deir El-Garnouse, near Minya, Egypt, May 27, 2017.

Join The Conversation