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Egypt's Military Is Killing Civilians in Its 'War on Terror'

Egyptian residents of the Sinai Peninsula say an out-of control Egyptian military, armed with American tanks, planes, and helicopters, has shown little regard for civilians trapped in the battle against Islamic State-affiliated militants.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Mohamed Ezz
Sep 23 2015, 4:05pm

An Apache helicopter flies over the Nile River, after clashes between supporters of the ousted president Morsi and Republican guards, near Tahrir square, Cairo, Egypt, 05 July 2013. (Andre Pain/EPA)

As 46-year-old Ibrahim was driving his car in Arish, the biggest city in the north of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last March, he passed by a government office where an army officer beckoned him to stop. Confused, Ibrahim pulled his car over. Thinking it was a routine procedure, because it wasn't yet past curfew time, he got his license and stepped out to ask the officer what the problem was. As he walked towards the officer, a nearby soldier got suspicious and, without warning, shot him dead.

"Here, when you go out, you say goodbye to your family first," Ibrahim's nephew, Abdullah, told VICE News. "Because it's very likely you might not return."

The Egyptian military never spoke publicly about the incident, instead it most likely added Ibrahim's name to a growing list of dead "militants." Every few days the Egyptian army spokesman releases the latest death toll from its military operation in the Sinai — September 19: 74 killed, September 20: five dead — accompanied by photos of the alleged terrorists corpses.

Related: Egypt To Mexico After Tourist Killings: Shit Happens in War

The announcements are made on Facebook, and it's illegal in Egypt to contradict the military's version of events.

"We can't know exactly what's going on," Sarah Margon, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. "But what we do know is that the number of counterterrorism activities are going up, and so are the civilian deaths."

Egypt declared a "war on terror" after the military deposed Egypt's first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, in July 2013. The government designated the Brotherhood a terrorist group, and announced that it would prosecute its war until all the "lands are cleared from terrorists." Over the last few months, an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has gained force, and Egypt has deployed its Second Army to conduct counterterrorism operations there.

VICE News spoke to half a dozen Sinai residents who reported living in a constant state of fear as the Egyptian military and local militants battled for control of the peninsula. Residents described an out-of control Egyptian military, armed with American tanks, planes, and helicopters, that shows little regard for the lives' of civilians trapped in the warzone. And family members of those killed in the fighting tell VICE News that the military operates under a cloud of complete impunity.

Photo from the Egyptian Military spokesperson's Facebook Page, allegedly showing a militant killed by the military.

Earlier this month, Egypt's war on terror claimed some high profile victims when the military used warplanes and at least one US-made, Apache attack helicopter to ambush a group of picnicking Mexican tourists in Egypt's Western desert. The military apparently mistook the tourists for militants aligned with Egypt's subsidiary of the Islamic State.

Survivors of the attack said that a squadron of warplanes from the Egyptian air force — which has hundreds of US-made combat aircraft — conducted a three-hour aerial bombardment on their convoy, and that soldiers shot terrified tourists as they tried to flee over the sand dunes.

The tourists' bodies did not make an appearance on the Egyptian military's Facebook page, and officials have so far refused to directly address the army's role in the killings.

"This incident has nothing to do with the army even if the army and police carried out the operation together," Brig. Gen. Mohamed Samir told reporters after the incident. "This is the system of this country, and you don't have the right to question it."

The killing of the Mexican tourists has brought international attention to the the human cost of Egypt's war on terror, and the crucial role played by the American-supplied and trained Egyptian military.

"The bottom line is we would not have learned anything about the killings of civilians accidentally in Egypt if they had not been foreigners," Michele Dunne, the director of the Carnegie Center's Middle East program said.

Dunne, a 17-year veteran of the State Department's Middle East desk, told VICE News that even the best sourced Egypt watchers can't be sure about the scale of civilian casualties in Egypt's counterterrorism campaign.

"But we know that the Mexican tourist killing is not an isolated incident, this is happening on a broader scale — it involves poor Egyptians, Bedouins, and villagers," she said.

Related: Egypt's President Pardons 100 Prisoners, Including Three Al Jazeera Journalists

In Sheikh Zuweid, a small town near the border with Gaza, it's now common to wake up to the sound of your neighbor's house burning down, 22-year-old student Omar said.

According to Omar, the army is not trained to avoid civilian targets.

"It is like they send their lowest-qualified troops to Sinai, where they learn as they go," Omar, who requested his family name not be used, said.

Local Egyptian media outlets often report houses hit by missiles and rockets in different areas of the peninsula. These reports, however, always say the origin of the rocket was unknown. Omar says that when someone's house is destroyed, the survivors are forced by Egyptian authorities to say they don't know from which direction the rocket came. To do otherwise can risk being turned away from hospitals for treatment, in case of injury.

"Everyone knows it's the military," he says. "It's blackmail."

Human rights groups insist this is part of a larger trend. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting "the mass home demolitions and forced eviction of about 3,200 families in the Sinai Peninsula over the past two years." It's the most detailed account of military excess in the Sinai, since Egyptian human rights groups and journalists are functionally banned from working there.

Still, the reports trickling out of Egypt's "war on terror" are leading some in Washington to reconsider the $1.3 billion in military equipment the US transfers to Egypt annually.

In a statement to VICE News, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said the Mexican tourists deaths were "avoidable" and condemned a growing pattern of "indiscriminate attacks by Egyptian forces against civilians."

"Senator Leahy is concerned that the performance of the Egyptian military has too often resulted in civilian casualties," said Tim Rieser, a foreign policy aide to Leahy, adding that "US equipment may have been used in the process."

Leahy is the author of the "Leahy Law," legislation that permits the US to identify foreign military units that are bad actors and deny them access to American weapons. Egypt is currently the second largest recipient of US military aid in the world — American-made M1A1 Abrams tanks form the backbone of the army, while F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters make its air force one of the best supplied in the region.

Photo from the Egyptian Military spokesperson's Facebook Page showing a US-made Apache helicopter operating in support of Egyptian ground troops. 

US military aid has flowed to Egypt largely uninterrupted for the last 35 years. The Obama administration did delay some weapons shipments after the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in 2013, citing concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation. But the White House quickly flip-flopped, as Egypt began to face a serious insurgency in the Sinai peninsula from Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a militant group that swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in November 2014.

The US reinstated military aid to Egypt last spring — beginning with a shipment of 10 Apache helicopters — and the Obama administration cited the insurgency as a main motivator.

"Egypt faces a significant and growing threat from extremist groups, particularly in the Sinai, and in the past several months has used Apache helicopters as a significant component of its counterterrorism operations," US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at the time. "So we believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten not just Egypt."

On July 30, just as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Cairo, the Pentagon delivered eight additional F-16 fighters to the Egyptian military. Just a month earlier, the State Department had issued a report to the US Congress admitting that "[Egyptian] Government forces have committed arbitrary or otherwise unlawful killings… during military operations in the Northern Sinai Peninsula."

At the same time, the State Department is standing by Egypt in its fight against the Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate.

"We support Egypt's right to take steps to maintain its own security and defend itself against terrorist attacks in the Sinai, where Egypt faces a significant threat," a State Department spokesman told VICE News.

But government officials and human rights observers say that the full scope of the Egyptian military's counter-terror operations are essentially a black-box, since the Egyptian military does not share full operational details with the US.

That makes enforcing the Leahy law and ensuring US arms are not implicated in human rights violations a serious challenge.

"Senator Leahy has repeatedly called for regular access for independent journalists, human rights observers, and US officials to areas where US military equipment is used," said Tim Rieser, Senator Leahy's foreign policy aide. "So far, the Egyptian government has not provided that access."

Related: Mexican Tourists Killed by Egyptian Forces Were Cleared For Picnic Site, Relative Says

The State Department is cagey about what it knows about alleged human rights violations committed by the Egyptian military.

"We do not provide assistance to any security force unit in Egypt when we have credible information that they have committed a gross violation of human rights," a State Department spokesperson said. Still, the July 30 Human Rights report acknowledges indiscriminate killings committed by the Egyptian military.

As part of the US military aid package to Egypt, the Department of Defense trains the Egyptian military personnel who operate Apaches and F-16s as well as the officers who direct operations. Egypt's top general-turned-president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was himself trained at the US Army War College.

The exact details of US training, however, are hard to nail down.

"Courses for foreign military personnel on counterterrorism and similar topics include human rights, laws of armed conflict, decision-making process and related material," Defense Department Spokesman Major Roger Cabiness told VICE News.

But the DoD would not confirm whether the Egyptian military officers now directing the counterterrorism campaign received such training in the US. The Egyptian military did not respond to request for comment about its conduct in the Sinai and the level of training it offers its soldiers.

Anecdotal reports from Egypt suggest that training is lacking. Mohamed, a private in the Egyptian army, who asked that his name be changed, told VICE News that he was only received two sessions of weapons training, including target practice.

When he hit three out of six targets during one of the few shooting exercises, he was rewarded for his "accuracy."

During the entire 13 months of training, he fired 12 bullets and was never trained to distinguish between civilians and legitimate targets, or how to minimize noncombatant deaths. Mohamad says that his conscripts who have served in the counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai received similar levels of training.

Related: 29 Islamic State Allies Reportedly Killed by Egypt as Sinai Fighting Heats Up

Robert Springborg, a leading expert on the Egyptian military and former professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, says that the Egyptian military's disregard for civilian lives is common knowledge in defense circles.

"They never had any interest in training on human rights issues," Springboard told VICE News, calling the Egyptian military a "massive force that in general shows disdain for its own population."

Springborg is skeptical of the DoD's claim that Egyptian officers are taught to avoid civilian deaths.

"I don't know of a single program over the length of our military relationship that really addresses protection of non-combatants," he said. What's more, he says Egyptian pilots are notoriously sloppy and its F-16 fleet has one of the highest crash rates in the world.

The State Department insists that the conduct of the Egyptian military doesn't contradict any US human rights laws, but it still concedes that some improvements could be made.

"We have also emphasized that achieving success will depend on the authorities adopting a more comprehensive approach to counterterrorism...that ensures civilian populations are protected," a State Department spokesman told VICE News.

Michele Dunne, the former State Department official, says the US-Egypt policy appears to be "tied up in knots." While the US wants to support the Egyptian counter-terrorism campaign, the military's human rights record is putting a serious strain on relations.

"Ultimately, US taxpayers pay for these weapons and this training," she said. "And we end up being complicit in how they are used."

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