The following article is an excerpt from a report that was first published in Arabic by the independent Egyptian daily newspaper al-Shorouk on 21 April 2016. EgyptWatch translated it into English to highlight the radicalisation taking place in Egyptian prisons as a result of the government’s violent crackdown on human rights. EgyptWatch could not independently verify the information presented in this report, written by Al-Shorouk journalist Mohamed Khayal.
El-Shorouk records in the following lines how prisons have turned into breeding grounds for the growth of extremist ideologies in general and ISIS in particular. This revelation comes in part from testimonies of prisoners currently held in Egyptian prisons and also of those who have been released. They reveal how ISIS elements within prison cells are intensely active in luring the youth and their success in securing pledges of allegiance from several young prisoners.
300 ISIS members in our wing
Mohamed, who served two years in the Tora Reception prison, says that during the initial days of his provisional detention, he was in a discussion with some persons who described themselves as members of “ISIS”. Mohamed, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained that the Reception prison consists of four wings (A, B, C, D), with each wing having several floors and each floor having 28 cells. One cell accommodates around 13 prisoners. He confirmed that during his stay at the A wing, there were no fewer than 300 inmates, most of whom had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
It came as a surprise to Mohamed that inmates of Tora Reception would pledge allegiance to ISIS since this prison is not a maximum-security prison unlike the other seven within the Tora complex. Conditions here aren’t as tough and prisoners are treated with relative leniency. Every inmate’s affiliation is well-known among the community. Prisoners affiliated with ISIS have their own cells and they even gather for their private rituals in groups. Their organisation is robust, evident from their allocation and distribution in micro-cells within the prison, much like the Brotherhood’s organisational pattern.
Chanting for al-Baghdadi
“At the stroke of midnight, ISIS members begin to chant distinctive eulogies and anthems from behind the cell-door, ensuring that their activities are heard and seen by the prison staff”, says Mohamed. He adds that among their chants is the following: “al-Aan! al-Aan! (Now! Now!), With swords and the Qur’an! We say to our Caliph what we realise and know! If you, O Abu Bakr, lead us to death, we shall none but you follow!”
Mohamed was astonished that the prison administration allowed ISIS members to freely mingle with other inmates which in turn enabled them to prey upon younger prisoners with ease. He affirmed that: “Young boys don’t spend even ten days with them before declaring their allegiance to ISIS.” He added: “I got together with a young man who was a friend before he declared his allegiance to ISIS and asked him the reason for him joining the group. He replied: They are the hope of the (Islamic) community, and they teach us new things about our religion which we were unaware of previously.” Unfortunately, ISIS members within Egyptian prisons expertly manipulate religious texts like Hadiths and Qur’anic verses. This comes at a time when religious education in the youth is below-par or has been learned informally through oral transmission. The prison administration prevents moderate Islamic scholars from entering the campus and educating the youth through refutation of ISIS ideology which is being regularly disseminated, or even creating an awareness of religious etiquette among the affected youth who are predominantly in the 19-23 age-group.
Either a tyrant or apostate
Regarding the attitude of ISIS members towards the prison administration and their fellow inmates, Mohamed says: “They refuse to eat prison food and similarly hold back from food sent by their non-ISIS family members. This is because they consider them to be defectors from Islam (murtadd) and as such, eating their food is non-permissible for them. In fact, some of them refuse to eat food sent by their own family members since they consider them to be apostates.” Mohamed adds that they address prison officers and soldiers as “murtadds” (apostates).
In their view, the incumbent regime in Egypt is a “tyrant regime” and the previous president Mohamed Morsi is an apostate, so is the whole Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails. One of them called out to a prison security guard: “Hey apostate, switch on the electricity in the wing.” Mohamed says: “Most of them are well-educated and well-off financially with some being medical or engineering graduates.” He adds: “I talked to a professor of an engineering college on the internet who had pledged allegiance to ISIS. He saw hope for the (Islamic) community in ISIS because it would establish a rightly guided Islamic caliphate and restore the authority of the Muslim leadership. This professor had disappeared for 120 days inside the National Security Headquarters without anyone from his family knowing his location. Finally, his appeal was heard by the prosecution and he was transferred to Tora Reception prison.”
Mohamed referred to an ongoing struggle between members of the Brotherhood and ISIS due to the latter enticing Brotherhood youth into joining them. Targets of such activities are those young men who are dissatisfied with their leadership in terms of dealing with the crisis. He says: “I once asked a Brotherhood leader: Why don’t you do something about them trying to recruit your young members? He replied: This is not as simple as it seems. We don’t know what to do about it.”
ISIS inmates refuse to be referred to as ISIS according to what Mohamed reports. He says: “They get furious if anyone refers to them by ISIS because it alludes towards the organisation in Syria and Iraq only whereas they believe that its presence is growing in several other parts of the world too and therefore they prefer to name it as “Islamic State” only.”
ISIS declared a caliphate on June 14, 2014 and asked Muslims to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi in his capacity as Caliph of all Muslims. Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the group’s spokesperson said that the state will not be referred to as that of Iraq and Syria, rather, it shall be referred to as the Islamic State only.
Mohamed adds that ISIS uses lies and falsifies heroic historical stories to lure young men into joining them. They showcase prisoners from Sinai as proof of ISIS’s established authority over that region claiming that Sinai is now an ISIS province in Egypt.
Mohamed concludes by saying: “During the one year I spent there, I was unable to find the answer to these two questions: Firstly, why does the prison administration allow ISIS to interact with inmates so easily? And secondly, why doesn’t the administration imprison them in a different prison, or a different remote wing, far away from other prisoners, so as to curb their influence among inmates?”
Pledges in Scorpion are quicker
A former inmate, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “The situation in Scorpion prison is a bit different. Living conditions are difficult and the prison staff are very obstinate. This has caused ISIS membership among the youth to rise sharply.”
The former inmate who spent five months in provisional detention before being released further says: “The inhumane living conditions and harsh treatment of inmates has caused the youth to view ISIS as the saviour-warrior who shall breach the walls and rescue them from these dungeons – since they have lost all hope of being released through the legal framework. This has resulted in youngsters attending just one session with ISIS members before declaring their allegiance to the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is currently headquartered in Iraq.”
He adds: “The biggest struggle in prison is obtaining a pair of slippers so as not to remain barefooted, or being allowed to obtain a toothbrush. These things have caused despair among the passionate youth who have lost all hope of experiencing a dignified lifestyle and have started viewing revenge as a viable solution to their problems.” He clarified that “melancholy” among the youth is exploited by ISIS members who lead them into believing that ISIS is their only “saviour” who shall seek revenge on their behalf and reestablish the authority of Muslim leaders. Some youth submit meekly to this idea while there are still others who insist on peacefulness.
“Inside the prison walls, ISIS members take advantage of a weak religious education of most youth and begin their propaganda by manipulating religious texts. Some of the fantasies they narrate are that ISIS has commissioned a navy which is stationed merely 10 kilometres off the European shores. The youthful eyes hearing these stories light up and victory-chants of Allahu Akbar resonate throughout the dormitories”, says the former prisoner.
He concludes: “Due to the inmates’ isolation within Scorpion prison and an inaccessible news-media, ISIS-fantasies hold strong sway among prisoners who have been brainwashed to such an extent that they interpret any incident heard from family members to be an ISIS victory. Some even claimed that ISIS was behind the Agouza corniche bombing which claimed 16 lives last year (2015), despite the incident being a criminal act. An ISIS member said that the organisation is already gaining traction within Cairo city.”
“Most youth who have pledged allegiance to ISIS know nothing about it except some videos they saw on YouTube before being imprisoned. ISIS members ensure that their comrades wear long hair to maintain a uniform and distinct appearance. The situation in Scorpion is relatively grimmer. There may be instances of “cocktail” wings consisting of prisoners of various affiliations such as ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, and a third party consisting of youth who aren’t part of the Brotherhood but some of them used to take part in their demonstrations, and those are many. Conflicts are rife especially between the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS members, so much so that physical clashes occur between them from time to time. Even worse is the free reign given to ISIS members who infiltrate the prisoners and are allowed to recruit new members.”
Read the full report in Arabic here.