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Ed Webb

"It Started With Conversations - And Then They Started Hitting Each Other" - 0 views

  • Inside the prisons of Egypt and other Arab and Muslim countries, a ferocious competition has erupted between radical militants and more established political Islamists over fresh recruits. ISIS is often muscling out more peaceful groups for influence and loyalists among the mostly young men tossed into cramped cells for months or years.
  • Some inmates are subjected to torture and deprivation, despite having committed no or minimal crimes, fueling anger that researchers have long feared breeds extremism in Arab jails.
  • The political dynamics inside Arab detention centers have ramifications far beyond the prison walls. Jails in the Middle East have long forged radical extremists, including the Egyptian intellectual godfather of Islamic extremism, Sayyid Qutb, and the founder of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian ex-convict whose al-Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS. Alleged ISIS supporters find prisons to be fertile soil, especially in brutal Arab regimes like Egypt. There are numerous signs ISIS has begun using prisons that are intended to confine them and limit their activities to expand their influence and even plan operations. Egyptian authorities and activists believe former prisoners recruited by ISIS in jail were behind suicide bombings of churches in Cairo in December and on Palm Sunday this year in Alexandria and Tanta.
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  • “Many of the prisoners were already very angry after the coup and eager to fight,” said Yasser Khalil, an Egyptian journalist who has extensively covered prisons. “Telling them them they will go to heaven and get virgins just makes it that much more attractive. They say, ‘Yes, you have a Christian neighbor and he is lovely. But the Coptic Church supports the state, and thus they should be killed.’”
  • Reports have emerged of ISIS recruiters being locked up in prisons all the way from Algeria to Russia’s Caucasus region, Tajikistan, and Indonesia.
  • many warn that ISIS’s nihilism is overpowering the Brotherhood’s appeals. “This is the year of disappointment and disillusion when there’s no hope for the Islamist factions to get out of prison any time soon,”
  • Refusing legal counsel is one trait that distinguishes ISIS prisoners from other inmates, including alleged al-Qaeda supporters. “He used to love life. He used to be keen on getting out of jail. But not anymore.”
  • “ISIS says, ‘We tried democracy and we ended up in jail,’” Abdullah recalled. “‘It was the army that introduced the gun. Why is Sisi in power? He has guns.’”
  • “His mission was to get closer to the poor and the simple people and convince them that if they joined the Islamic State they would have power, money, and women,” he said, “and heaven in the afterlife.”
  • Ahmed Abdullah, the liberal activist, had had enough. He approached some wealthy businessmen inside the prison and arranged for them to bribe guards to allow in some books. He launched a reading group using Arabic translations of world literature and philosophy. They read Franz Kafka to understand the nightmarish nature of Egypt’s bureaucracy, George Orwell as an illustration of brutal authoritarianism, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an introduction to democratic governance and the social contract. To his delight the other prisoners were receptive; even some of the Islamists would attend the talks.Suddenly, security forces stormed in and seized the books, loudly accusing Abdullah, who is a professor of engineering at a university in Cairo, of poisoning the minds of the inmates. He was transferred to a dank solitary confinement cell, without a towel or blanket. After three days he was released from jail. He said authorities must have calculated he was more trouble inside prison than outside.“When we have a chance to compete we win,” said Abdullah, smoking flavored shisha at a cafe in central Cairo. “The inmates were really excited with what we had to say. But it turns out our government considers secular activists more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood, or ISIS.”
  • Many of Egypt’s estimated 40,000 prisoners are being held in makeshift jailhouses, interior ministry compounds and military camps that don’t have the capacity for separating inmates. One former prisoner described watching as another inmate was recruited by an ISIS supporter while sitting for hours in the van on the way from jail to court. One researcher described a brawl involving Brotherhood and ISIS prisoners during a similar transfer of inmates earlier this year.
  • “ISIS looks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, they consider them infidels, and they point this out to the younger Muslim Brotherhood members,”
  • ISIS targets recruits who have special skills. Gamal Ziada recalled intense competition between the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS over a prisoner who was a student at Cairo’s elite Zewail City of Science and Technology, considered Egypt’s MIT. “ISIS told him, ‘You’re not going to carry a weapon,’” Gamal Ziada said. “‘You’re not going to fight. You will use your brain.’”
  • “He tried to convince me that I was an apostate and that my parents were apostates too, and I have to convince my family to give up the pleasures of the world and return to Allah,” the smuggler said of his 2015 imprisonment. “He used to ask me to share lunch and dinner with him. He was ordering the best Turkish food in town. He was very rich. He told me that I could continue my work in smuggling for the Islamic State and make much more profit than I did with working with refugees.”
  • “Imagine you are in prison — the great challenge is killing time,” said Ghadi, whose father and brother have been jailed. “Before you could read books. When they closed that door the only way to kill time is sharing your thoughts and experiences. The Islamist groups and factions are the great majority of prisoners. Imagine there’s a constant flow of radical ideas into your mind. They talk and listen and talk and listen. You start to give in. You get weak. You lose all rational argument. You are finally ready to absorb radical thoughts and arguments.”
  • Some experts fear ISIS has recruited potential sleeper agents in prison who might later become emboldened to act. Abdou, the researcher, said he interviewed one former inmate who joined ISIS in prison but dropped any Islamist pretenses the moment he walked out of jail, shaving his beard and going back to smoking shisha and lazing about with old friends.
  • ISIS recruitment and violence inside prisons jumped in 2015 when Egyptian authorities began clamping down on allowing books inside jails
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