The Arab Sharkas cell: The quasi-covert military trial of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes

Until mid-2013, Nader,* a 25-year-old graduate of the Institute of Tourism and Hospitality, worked as a salesman in a Tommy Hilfiger store in 6th of October City’s Mall of Arabia on the outskirts of Cairo. He got the job after working as a shift supervisor at Kentucky Fried Chicken in the same mall.

In the first round of investigations after Nader was arrested last March, the military prosecutor asked him the usual question in such cases: “When did you start getting religious?”

“I started being religious in July 2013. At that exact time, I started praying, changed my lifestyle and stayed away from some of things I used to do,” Nader answered, adding that his religiosity was stirred through discussions with a friend he worked with at the mall. This friend introduced him to others, who encouraged him to travel abroad to better understand Islam, given the fact that, he says, “the young were unable to get married or maintain homes because of the financial situation and because the country was not stable.”

After a while, Nader’s new friends introduced him to people from his neighborhood that had traveled to Syria. After Nader spoke to them, he was convinced.

“There I will know my religion, and I will be able to get married and live a comfortable life,” he thought. This was all based on an assumption that Syria had an entity called Beit Amwal al-Muslimin (The House of Funds for Muslims), which gathered donations from Muslims around the world to help those in need, particularly financially strained youth who are unable to marry.

Exactly a year after he became religious, which included a short period spent with combatants against the Syrian regime, the young Cairene became a defendant in the first military trial of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes members — the group that has claimed responsibility for most of the bloodiest attacks targeting police and Armed Forces over the last year.

Last Wednesday, the court referred the case to the Grand Mufti for a final verdict on the death sentences handed down to Nader and six other defendants, which is due September 23. Two other defendants in the case will be sentenced on the same date. This is the first criminal verdict from any Egyptian court against the most dangerous local terrorist group in Egypt today.

Over the last few weeks, Mada Masr has analyzed the 1,000-page case file, attended one of the closed sessions of the trial alongside the defendants’ lawyers and some of their relatives, and interviewed one of the defendants and some of family members and defense lawyers of other defendants in the case. .

This military trial, which started and ended without any noticeable media coverage, presents a model for the size of the current security threat against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration, as well as a rare glimpse into a new generation of jihadis, who announced an all-out war on the Armed Forces and police after the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power and the July 3, 2013, government was formed.

Parallel trials in civilian and military courts

In a hall that looked more like an auditorium or theater inside a well-kept building at the Hikestep military camp — located in the middle of the desert road between Cairo and Ismailia — the court session begins.

Three generals in uniform sit behind a podium on stage. To their right is a military major representing the prosecution.

Most of the seats are empty, with the exception of those filled by 20 or so relatives, mostly women in black niqabs. There are about five children and a few men. A row of lawyers sit in the front. In the back, police officers and army soldiers secure the trial. The eight defendants sit inside a cage to the left of the hall. All appear to be under 30, bearded and wearing white remand prisoner uniforms.

One of the judges begins reading the detailed charges against the defendants, which include planning several armed attacks on military targets and personnel, resulting in the death of nine soldiers and officers. The judge stops after every group of charges, calling out the concerned defendant and asking, “Did this happen?”

One after the other, each of the defendants utters roughly the same phrase: “I am not subject to man-made laws, and I only recognize Sharia courts that rule by God’s laws.”

This was the last of six court sessions quietly and almost secretively conducted over the last three months, in which nine defendants — one in absentia — were tried in a military court for leading and taking part in a cell affiliated with Ansar Beit al-Maqdes.

Nader and the other defendants also face a longer and more dangerous list of charges parallel to this trial. They are among a larger group of 200 defendants that were referred to a civilian criminal court by the public prosecutor last May. The date of that trial is yet to be set.  The prosecution has charged the defendants — 102 of whom are currently detained — with the key attacks for which Ansar Beit al-Maqdes has claimed responsibility. This includes the bombings of the Cairo and Daqahlia security directorates, as well as the assassination of several police commanders and officers, including the attempted assassination of the interior minister.

Meanwhile, the military judiciary picked these nine defendants to stand trial in a separate case that began last June. These defendants are accused of involvement in three attacks executed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes on military targets last March. The Military Justice Law grants military courts exclusive jurisdiction over the trial of civilians accused of assaulting the Armed Forces, as per an article in the current Constitution adopted in January.

The military prosecution accused the defendants of planning and executing an armed attack on a bus transporting soldiers in Cairo’s Amiriya district on March 13, 2014, which resulted in the death of a master sergeant in the Armed Forces. Two days later, another attack killed six soldiers at a military police checkpoint in the Musturud area of southern Cairo. On March 19, a brigadier and a colonel in the Armed Forces were killed when the Armed Forces raided an abandoned warehouse in Ezbet Arab Sharkas in Qalyubia, which gave the group the name “Arab Sharkas cell.” The military prosecution claims that six of those accused of committing the attacks in Amiriya and Musturud were killed during the exchange of gunfire in the Arab Sharkas incident. The defendants currently on trial were apprehended in that raid, according to the indictment record.

The case files show that the Armed Forces found two weapons in the storage space, and the Department of Criminal Evidence later confirmed that they were used in the attacks in Amiriya and Musturud. Additionally, explosives were found in the warehouse, as well as organizational and training manuals downloaded from the Internet. A white banner reading, “The incursion of vengeance for Abu Ubaida. The worst is yet to come. Ansar Beit al-Maqdes,” was also found. The banner refers to Mohamed al-Sayed Mansour al-Toukhy, who was killed by the police according to a statement issued by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes last March. At the time, the Ministry of Interior said that he was responsible for the Cairo Directorate bombing last January.

The prosecution accuses four of the defendants of engaging with Ansar Beit al-Maqdes leaders in North Sinai and agreeing to found a cell affiliated with the organization in other cities in Greater Cairo and the Delta, at which time the other defendants joined. The defendants are also accused of aiming through their attacks on military targets, to “affect the morale of the [Armed] Forces and accordingly their fighting efficiency, which would weaken the ability to control the country.”

New jihadis: From Egypt to Syria and back

It is impossible even for close followers and specialists in jihadi movements to recognize any of the defendants’ names or pictures. Only two of them were previously arrested during ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, when the Emergency Law permitted their detention and that of thousands of others with no charges or trials.

The State Security Investigations apparatus held one of the two defendants in administrative detention from 2006 to 2009, after he was caught while police searched for one of his friends who crossed to Gaza when the Rafah border crossing opened around 2005. The second former detainee said he had lived and worked in Yemen before the Yemeni authorities arrested and handed him over to the Egyptian Intelligence Services, who in turn handed him to the Ministry of Interior. The ministry put him in detention from the end of 2007, until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces released him on February 25, 2011, along with hundreds of other Islamist detainees released following Mubarak’s ouster.

Other than these two defendants, all the members of this group and the bigger group of 200 accused of carrying out Ansar Beit al-Maqdes operations had no connection with jihadi thoughts or interest in public issues until recently. According to National Security officers (the current name for the State Security Investigations apparatus), the State Security prosecution and the military prosecution, they did not decide to engage in militant activity until after July 3, 2013.

Nader was one of these new jihadis. After he was arrested, he gave a detailed account that illustrates his quick transformation from a regular young Cairene man to an active jihadi in Ansar Beit al-Maqdes’ operations in greater Cairo. Like all the other seven defendants in the case, Nader gave a different account a month later, when he denied all charges after the defendants were transferred to the maximum-security Al-Aqrab sector in the Tora prison complex. All the defendants refused to speak before the military court throughout the trial, on the basis that they don’t recognize “man-made laws.”

After a short period of religiosity and meeting new friends, these friends facilitated Nader’s travels to Syria through a tourist visa to Turkey. According to his initial account, he took a bus from Istanbul to Antakya, where he was welcomed by individuals who helped him cross the borders to the north Syrian countryside. There, he received four weeks of basic training, “two weeks for fitness and one week for dealing in, dismantling and reassembling arms. I was particularly trained in using Kalashnikovs. The last week was for prayers and Quran only.”

After his training ended, Nader was transferred to Idlib, where the promise of marriage was fulfilled. He was married to “a Syrian 20-year-old widow, without paying a dowry or anything.” During this period, Nader received 600 Syrian pounds a month as pocket money (less than US$50). 

After a 5-day marriage recess, Nader was assigned to a military group led by an emir by the name of Abu Zubayr al-Tounessi, in order to kill “the Shias of Syria because of what the Bashar [al-Assad]’s regime does to Sunni Muslims.” But after another five days, he said that he insisted on going back to Egypt before being assigned to any military operation. He pretended that his brother in Egypt died and promised to come back to Syria after the funeral. The emir gave Nader his passport back, but ordered one of the Egyptian combatants from the group to go with him and “keep an eye on him.” Before returning to Egypt, Nader divorced his new wife.

By December 2013, Nader had only had six months of religious observance, according to his initial account to the military prosecution. During these six months, he had returned from Syria with less than a month of combat training, and it didn’t seem that he had any operational experience.

A few weeks later, Nader got in touch with the acquaintance who traveled with him, and the latter introduced him to other individuals who used to meet in a warehouse in the Arab Sharkas area. Nader said he witnessed the group planning the car bomb that was used in the Cairo Security Directorate attack on January 24, 2014. He also witnessed the preparation and broadcast of a video in which the group announced Ansar Beit al-Maqdes’ responsibility for the bombing.

Nader then received some assignments to identify Christians’ cars as they were leaving a church close to his house in 6th of October City so that group members could steal them. The organization believed that “the cars of Christians and their money are halal for us to steal and use in our operations, be it bombings or attacks.”

Other assignments for Nader included investigating the possibility of placing a car bomb next to the church, in addition to following the cars of some policemen living in the area, until he identified “their house or their usual traveling map in preparation for their killings.”

Nader insisted in his initial account that he didn’t know that the group he lived with belonged to Ansar Beit al-Maqdes until after the Cairo Security Directorate bombing. He also learned from them of their responsibility for the attack on the Musturud checkpoint, but he insisted that he didn’t take part in the attack. He added that he resisted the group’s attempt to have him join the organization, and he showed a similar reluctance in Syria with regards to some of his assignments. He insisted on going back to Syria until the group facilitated a new visa to Turkey for him, along with another two members from the same organization. When they left the tourism office in 6th of October City, they found the police waiting for them outside. The three men were arrested on March 16, 2014.

Nader’s story is not radically different from that of the other defendants, as shown in the case files. He is one of the four out of eight defendants who admitted to the military prosecution, with varying levels of detail, that they traveled to Syria through Turkey at different times over the last two years to take part in combat against the Syrian regime’s army. The four defendants shared the same motivations for their travels to Syria: A mix of a political orientation against ruling Arab regimes and a religious view antagonizing Shias, in addition to dire economic conditions in Egypt.

Gaza also figures in the case file — the military prosecution accuses one of the defendants of receiving military training from the Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, after he crossed to Gaza through the tunnels in Sinai. He then returned to Egypt to plan and implement attacks against the army and the police in the period following former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013.

However, apart from Nader, about half of the defendants admitted to joining Ansar Beit al-Maqdes and taking part in some of their operations. They later renounced these confessions. Their more detailed confessions came during the investigations of the Supreme State Security prosecution, which were conducted in Al-Aqrab prison parallel to the military prosecution’s investigations as part of the other “major bombings” case, which will be tackled later in this series.

A Salafi stop on the road to jihad

The oldest defendant in the case is not more than 35 years old, while the youngest is 19. Most of them are university graduates, spanning law school, to science and business degrees. They all come from urban backgrounds in Cairo and Ismailia. 

Most of the defendants share the beginning of their interest in resisting the ruling regime of Egypt with the January 25, 2011 revolution. Before that, they were not concerned with public issues, and their activities were limited to attending religious classes with Salafi sheikhs in mosques, or through the Internet or Islamist satellite channels. All the defendants’ accounts reflected an ideological rejection of democracy and elections, which turned them away from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Dawah movement, represented by the Nour Party. At the same time, they all objected to the Brotherhood’s ouster from rule in 2013 and all the violations on protesters that followed, which they considered to be a war on all those belonging to the Islamist movement.

The defendants’ accounts during the initial investigations reveal a similar allegiance to Salafi thought, through the teachings of sheikhs such as Mohamed Hassaan, Abu Ishaq al-Howeiny, Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, Fawzyal-Saeed, Sayed al-Araby, Mohamed Abdel Moneim al-Bary and others. Then they move to Salafi jihadism for different reasons, including a rejection by some of the gradualist approach to establishing Sharia rule in Egypt that was adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Others turned to Salafi jihadism to help fight the war against what they call Shia regimes ruling in Syria and Iraq, or against Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine.

For most of the defendants, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes represented the only window for jihadi activity in Egypt, perhaps due to the erosion of the terrorism that peaked in the 1990s after Jamaa al-Islamiya moved on to party work, while the Egyptian Islamic jihadi movement joined the Al-Qaeda organization, which doesn’t have any actual presence in Egypt. But Al-Qaeda’s influence is not totally absent from the defendants’ thought process, as shown by evidence the prosecution claimed to have seized in the warehouse, which included speeches by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successive leaders of the organization.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdes is believed to have been formed at some point in 2011 in northern Sinai with a main goal of targeting Israel. This goal explains the group’s name, which is inspired by another jihadi group called the Mujahideen in Aknaf Beit al-Maqdes (jihadis in the Periphery of Jerusalem), that is active in Gaza. But after July 3, the group decided to reorient its activities toward Egypt and to target the Egyptian Armed Forces and police. The group’s cells spread outside of Sinai to what they called “Al-Wady” (the valley), namely Greater Cairo, the Delta and Ismailia.

The youngest of the defendants is a high school student, who we will call Abdel Qadir. Abdel Qadir’s death sentence was handed to the Grand Mufti as well, and the sentence is expected to be confirmed in September. In his initial account to the military prosecutor, Abdel Qadir said that he sympathized with Khaled Saeed, the young Alexandrian who was tortured to death by police, lighting the first flames of the January 25 revolution. Abdel Qadir went to Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 26, 2011, to take part in the protests. He was arrested and released shortly thereafter due to his young age, only to return to the square days later to celebrate Mubarak’s resignation.

In the following months, Abdel Qadir took part in the intermittent Tahrir Square protests, but was gradually attracted to the Islamist movement amid the widening gap between civil and Islamist forces since March 2011. He took part in the Salafis’ protests in front of the Cabinet that month, demanding the return of Kamilia Shehata, a Christian woman who allegedly converted to Islam before she was forced by police to return to her Christian husband. There, he was introduced to Islamists who invited him to attend religious classes, which ended with his gradual but quick adoption of Salafi jihadism in July 2011. Abdel Qadir also took part in the Tahrir protests demanding the application of Sharia, which was later dubbed “the Friday of Qandahar.” He also took part in the Abbasseya protests, which were attended by a majority of Salafis in May 2012.

In 2013, Abdil Qadir traveled twice to Syria to support the anti-regime combatants. The last time he went there was in July 2013, after Morsi’s ouster. This is when he decided to focus his activities on the Egyptian army, which, as shown in other defendants’ accounts as well, was viewed in a fashion similar to that of the Syrian regime’s army that “unjustly kills Muslims.”

When the military interrogator asked him of his religious beliefs, Abdil Qadir said that he follows the views of Imam Ibn Taymeya, deceased in the 13th century, who says that “refraining factions who have authority” should be killed — meaning ruling elites that refrain from applying Sharia.

“Are there members of the police and the army in the Egyptian republic who belong to such refraining factions?” the interrogator asked.

“Yes, and they are those who killed people unjustly,” he responded.

He went on to say that he was attracted to Ansar Beit al-Maqdes “because my thought is their thought, and that is the jihadi thought,” and the aims of the group are to “return the Islamic caliphate and the implementation of the Sharia of God.”

At the end of the same investigation, Abdul Qadir told the military officer openly, “My thought is a terrorist thought because I carry the thought of the terrorist movement, which entails attacking anyone for my defense or that of others.”

The truth behind the Al-Azouly prison detainees

In their statements and arguments before court, the defendants and their lawyers insisted they were not at the Arab Sharkas warehouse at the time of the raid, as claimed by the military prosecution.

Three of the defendants, including Nader and Abdel Qadir, said that they were arrested last March in 6th of October City as they left a travel agency they frequented. They had been applying for a Turkish visa in order to return to fight in Syria.

Abdel Qadir’s sister went to the agency after her brother was indicted. The agency’s owner told her that the authorities had instructed her to notify National Security whenever a young man applied for a tourist visa to Turkey. Accordingly, the owner reported the three defendants, but refused to testify in court regarding the circumstances and place of the arrest.

Similarly, two other defendants in the case were taken into custody in the Ramses and Ghamra areas a few days after the tourist agency arrest. The suspects were apprehended as they went to meet other Ansar Beit al-Maqdes members in what appears to have been a sting operation.

The case file and the defense lawyers’ statements for the three remaining defendants point to a noticeable contradiction. The defendants’ statements to the prosecution, as well as their lawyers’ arguments before the court, claim that they were arrested in November and December of last year, three months before the crimes they are accused of occurred. For those three months, they say they were detained at Al-Azouly military prison in Ismailia before they were referred to investigation and moved to Al-Aqrab prison.

Over the last few months, many local and international rights organizations as well as foreign newspapers have reported that the Armed Forces secretly and illegally detain and torture hundreds of suspects at Al-Azouly, which is annexed to the Galaa military camp. The state has refused to respond to accusations of forced disappearances and torture in the prison, and does not even acknowledge its existence — likely because military justice code prohibits the detention of civilians in military prisons, even if they will be tried in military courts.

The case file shows that military investigators seem to have been walking on eggshells to avoid even the slightest reference to Al-Azouly. Karim Farouk, a National Security officer who ran the Ministry of Interior’s investigation into the Arab Sharkas cell, was asked, “What would you say about the statements of the three defendants claiming that when the crime was committed, they were under arrest?” The prosecutor asked the question without naming the prison, which does not officially exist. The officer denied the claims, and insisted that all the defendants were arrested at the Arab Sharkas warehouse last March.

In July, the defense lawyers demanded that the military court strike the defendants’ initial confessions on the grounds that they were coerced under torture. One of the defense lawyers whose client was detained at Al-Azouly said that the prison had “turned into the Abu Ghraib of Egypt.”

The defense lawyers insisted that the actual perpetrators of the crimes in question were the six people killed by military forces during the exchange of fire in the Arab Sharkas warehouse. The eight defendants currently in detention are merely what one of the lawyers called “the strategic reserve of the Ministry of Interior.”

The case file shows that torture was not only committed at Al-Azouly. Khaled Farag, who says he was arrested in Ghamra on March 19, appeared before the military prosecution in a wheelchair the day after his arrest. He told the investigator that he was tortured the day before, and suffered blows to the head and different parts of his body. He also said that he could not identify his whereabouts at the time, as he was blindfolded.

The investigator wrote in the report that the defendant appeared “to have scrapes and bruises on the face and mouth, as well as evidence of scrapes on both hands.” When the investigator asked why he was in a wheelchair, Farag responded that “there was a fracture in his left foot as a result of being beaten during his arrest.”

At the end of the investigation, the defendant was referred for a medical examination on his injuries. In a report dated April 1, the Tora prison medic noted that Farag “suffers from a fracture in the left thighbone, a fracture in the left knee and bruises in different parts of the body. He was given treatment, and was prepared for surgery. A surgery was then performed to lock the thighbone internally using a plate and screws, and part of the right knee bone was removed and another part was held together by wires.”

The investigation continued at the Tora prison hospital on April 16. “All of my previous statements were extracted through torture and threats,” Farag said. His papers were referred to the Grand Mufti to review the death sentence meted out on August 26.

A month and a half before the ruling, the defendants appeared indifferent as to the outcome of their ongoing trial and showed no faith in the independence of the court. On July 6, one of the hottest days of Ramadan, the court adjourned the hearing for 30 minutes.  During the break, one of the defendants inside the cage spoke to his father, who rebuked him for insisting on refusing to accept the legitimacy of the court and only accepting “God’s law.”

The young defendant calmly addressed his father and Mada Masr: “I say what I want to say and the lawyer says what he wants to say, but at the end of day, the verdict will come to the judge in an envelope. This is a political case, not a criminal one.”

Some of defense lawyers seemed more optimistic about the case, a sentiment that now appears to have been misplaced, given that all but two of the defendants’ files were sent to the Grand Mufti in preparation for an impending death sentence.

Ahmed Helmy, a well-known lawyer who is well versed in terrorism cases and a member of the Freedoms Committee of the Lawyers Syndicate, represented four of the eight defendants. His statement took up most of the five-hour session. He told Mada Masr during the adjournment, and later in his downtown Cairo office, that this “court circuit has a good reputation” and includes three of the most senior military judges in the Military Central Command, which includes greater Cairo. He said that the court had sustained the defense’s requests in a way that would not have happened in a civilian criminal court.

One of the reasons Helmy was optimistic was that the case was heard by the same court that tried the Rassd channel case, in which defendants faced charges of “illegally obtaining national defense secrets and broadcasting them online on their website.” The broadcast was based on a leaked video of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he met with some officers. In April, the court acquitted Helmy’s client and issued a lenient sentence of one-year imprisonment for another.

Before the verdict, Helmy was particularly confident regarding the fate of the three defendants who had been detained at Al-Azouly. They were apprehended long before the attacks took place, and furthermore, Helmy felt that the court was convinced that the secret prison existed, and that the defendants had disappeared before suddenly reappearing in court three months after their arrest.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdes: Between terrorism in the 1990s, and terrorism in the Islamic State

In analyzing the case file, there seems to be a major difference between Ansar Beit al-Maqdes and the jihad of 1990s Egypt or the Islamic State when it comes to assaulting civilians. All the defendants in the Arab Sharkas case testified that their war is only against military and police forces, because “the blood of the people on the street is inviolable.” Some defendants went even further, saying that they only target police and military forces who are directly involved in attacks on Muslims.

However, the circumstances of the attacks that some of the defendants confessed to belie these statements. The assaults indicate a certain level of randomness. One of the bus passengers that survived the Amiriya attack said in a statement to the prosecution that he works as a musician in the military marching band, and all six soldiers gunned down in the attack on the Musturud Checkpoint were conscripts fulfilling their mandatory military service. Some of them were only weeks away from completing their service and returning to civilian life.

There is also some confusion with regards to the group’s relationship with the Islamic State (IS). Despite the fact that Ansar Beit al-Maqdes has so far not announced its allegiance to the IS or its caliph, as other jihadi groups in the region have, one of the defendants who initially confessed to taking part in the Musturud checkpoint attack said he joined Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in 2012 because he saw the regime in Egypt as “secular, pagan and infidel,” and has thought so for a long time. “But the last four years crystallized it for me,” he said.

When the investigator asked him, “Which countries do you think apply Sharia?” he answered, “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is established in some parts of Iraq and Syria and is ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There aren’t any other countries who apply Sharia.”

The defendant gave this statement months before IS announced the foundation of the caliphate in June. He was not among the defendants that had fought in Syria, but said he heard of IS from scholars he trusted and had read about the group online.

Last week, several media outlets published pictures taken from jihadi websites of a man by the name of Ubaida al-Masry who said that he heads the “Sharia institutes in IS.” The websites claimed that Masry was killed in an IS attack on the Riqqa airport in Syria a few days ago. He appears masked in one of the pictures, holding a letter from the “the warriors of the Land of Kinana (Egypt) in the Islamic State.”

Reports of a Facebook account attributed to Masry seem to indicate that he was a member in the Arab Sharkas group prior to traveling to Syria. On this Facebook account, he purportedly wrote, “Every time I remember the brethren of the Arab Sharkas battle, memories come back to me. I remember the men I wished to have sacrificed myself for. They are heroes. This is not recent. By God, every time I knew one of them, I knew that he was a fierce believing warrior who does not submit to tyrants. It is either victory or death for them. They work with minimal resources and have done to the apostates things that they do not know who did them to this day.”

Even with last week’s court verdict, neither the defense lawyers nor the relatives of the defendants were expecting the men to be released. Even if they had been exonerated, they would still be defendants in a forthcoming trial for what is commonly known as the “Great Explosions” case, in which 200 Ansar Beit al-Maqdes members face charges.

Hesham, the brother of the defendant Hany Mostafa Amer, was present during the last court session when the verdict was pronounced. His brother’s papers were sent to the Grand Mufti, along with seven others. When asked for his reaction to the verdict, Hesham said, “Hany will spend many months in prison either way, so it doesn’t matter whether he’s detained pending trial or sentenced.”

*Some names have been altered in this piece to protect their identity.

Hossam Bahgat