Mahmoud al-Ahmady awaits the signal from the scout team. Two blocks away, the team is waiting for General Prosecutor Hesham Barakat at his house in Heliopolis, in the north of Cairo.
The cavalcade of three SUVs finally sets off a little before 10 am on Monday morning, June 29, 2015. Mahmoud gets the signal. He is struck with momentary anxiety. He sends a text message to his older brother Mohamed: “Pray for me. I am in danger and might not come back.”
The cavalcade starts to turn right. The first car passes. Aboul Qassem al-Azhary, Mahmoud’s colleague, is ready with the camera. Mahmoud seizes the remote for the car rigged with explosives 50 meters away. When the second car carrying the general prosecutor passes, he presses the button.
Everything comes to an end in seconds that the camera records.
Mahmoud and his team quickly move to where a car is waiting for them. Aboul Qassem hands Mahmoud a memory card with the footage of the operation. They part after having exchanged directives to disappear until things calm down.
Mahmoud sends another text message to his brother: “The general prosecutor is facing God’s judgement.”
On Saturday, July 22, one of the terrorism circuits at the Cairo Criminal Court issued its judgement in the case. All 66 defendants were convicted, with 28 of them sentenced to death.
Mada Masr consulted the nearly 6,000 pages of documents that the State Security Prosecution submitted to Cairo Criminal Court, which paint small swaths of the larger story of the general prosecutor’s assassination in the summer of 2015. The preceding scene is one of them. Mada Masr also spoke to different sources to produce a closer account of the operation and its context.
The details point to a group of Muslim Brotherhood youth who were part of the foundation of a nameless organization that emerged out of the violent current within the Brotherhood. A few months after its creation, this nameless organization succeeded in planning and executing the most ambitious political assassination operation in Egypt in a quarter century.
Mahmoud is the primary defendant in custody. In recorded footage that captured him during one of the sessions in the trial that began in June 2016, he speaks with confidence. A somewhat tall young man, he turns sharply when interrupted, dispensing looks of impatience. As Judge Hassan Farid speaks, Mahmoud looks at the ceiling of the hall. When presented with his confession, he responds: “Give me — before all these people and before the camera — an electrocutioner, and sit me down with anyone you choose for one hour, and I’ll make him confess he killed [former President Anwar] Sadat.”
Born in 1994, in a village in Sharqiya, north of Egypt, Mahmoud has two older brothers and one older sister. He studied Hebrew and Turkish at the faculty of languages and translation at Al-Azhar University. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood at an early age, following in the footsteps of his brother Mohamed, also sentenced to death in the case of the prosecutor general’s assassination.
Mahmoud took up Brotherhood activities in his first year as an undergraduate in the 2012-2013 academic year, the tail end of which being the year that saw former President and Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi deposed on July 3. He joined the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in to oppose the president’s ouster. There, he was shot once in the back when the sit-in was cleared. His brother Mohamed was shot twice.
The next year, Mahmoud took part in the Muslim Brotherhood student mobilization at Al-Azhar University, one of the most heated sites of contest with the regime after July 3. Students allied with, what he calls during the course of his interrogation by the prosecution, Brotherhood-formed “deterrence committees,” which aimed to protect marches and disrupt the police’s efforts to disperse protesters. These committees used flares, molotovs, and, in some cases, pellet rifles. Most protesters did not know where these weapons came from, however: They appeared suddenly during protests when confrontations with police broke out and would disappear just as suddenly.
“Give me — before all these people and before the camera — an electrocutioner, and sit me down with anyone you choose for one hour, and I’ll make him confess he killed [former President Anwar] Sadat.”
But boredom struck the youth, and, for many, marches became a waste of time. Some had ambitions for something more significant. The deterrence committees pivoted from defense to offense, which did not mean anything more than forming roadblocks, burning down electricity stations and setting police cars on fire. Some of them operated through independent initiatives, and others through personal relations with the organization’s leaders. They were primarily composed of student Muslim Brotherhood youth, as well as a handful of close sympathizers.
Mahmoud was a member of one of these groups, and, as per the account he gave during his interrogation, he became involved in the formation of a committee “whose purpose was to exhaust the police.”
This was a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was beset by a sharp internal struggle characterized by a rift between the traditional group leadership supporting the continued adherence to a peaceful path and proponents of a shift in strategy toward the use of violence. By the onset of Fall 2014, everything became permissible for the proponents of violence within the Brotherhood “except taking lives,” as one defendant in the case says during interrogations. This includes the use of explosive material and IEDs, whose blasts did not leave anyone dead. These violent groups and their operations began to be known as “special operations committees” and “special operations work.”
At the beginning, Mahmoud did not know the particular details of the group to which he belonged, neither who was at its head, nor what its structure looked like. In the documents that detail his interrogation, he says he only had a vague and general idea that he belonged to the front that defended the Brotherhood’s “revolutionary doctrine” in “resistance to the coup.”
In September 2014, one of his colleagues invited him to attend a “special operations” training initiative, saying it would require him to be away from his house for a long time. Mahmoud tells prosecutors that he agreed to the invitation.
Two days after this correspondence, his friend told him to head to Arish. Someone called him from a non-Egyptian cell number, and then met him there. Together, they headed to the border with Gaza. His companion was replaced with others, and together they walked along desert roads — rather than tunnels — crossing over fences, until he found himself standing in Gaza.
There, he did not see the faces of any of those he interacted with during the training. The masked men belonged to the Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, Mahmoud says during his interrogation. He only knew them as Aboul Waleed, Abu Ibrahim, Abu Omar and other “Abus.” By chance, Mahmoud overheard that Abu Omar worked as a Hamas intelligence officer.
The assistance from Gazan officers, according to a source inside the Brotherhood with intimate knowledge of the relations between Egypt and Hamas, happened at a individual level or through field initiatives outside the central approval of Hamas or high-level coordination with Brotherhood leadership.
In March 2016, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior announced that Hamas was involved in the training of Brotherhood members who assassinated the general prosecutor. Hamas denied this and said that the allegations “are not in accord with the efforts undertaken to develop relations between Hamas and Cairo.” Days after the official allegation, a Hamas delegation visited Cairo to start up negotiations between the two governments for the first time after a long abeyance.
The Brotherhood source speaking about Hamas says that the delegation was “stunned” when Egypt revealed the details of the Barakat case investigations and the evidence implicating members of the Qassam Brigade in the operation. During the negotiations, which are ongoing, Egypt requested that Hamas hand over several individuals wanted for involvement in violent acts.
For the source, the recent understanding struck between Hamas and Egypt confirms the latter’s conviction that Gazan assistance in violence carried out on its neighbor’s territory was not based on a decision emanating from Hamas. As such, the political leadership in Gaza grew more amenable to Egypt’s demands with time, in exchange for coordination on the more pressing concern of policing the shared Sinai border. The prosecution in Egypt did not charge any Palestinians in this case.
And once again, the prohibition on violence was amended, this time for the group to which Mahmoud belonged. One of the defendants says during his interrogation that the group was involved in “advanced special operations,” whose activities he defines as “targeting specific individuals in the police and judiciary.”
Within a month and a half, Mahmoud had learned how to engineer and manufacture explosives and use weapons in the Beit Hanun area of northeast Gaza, according to the statements he gave during his interrogation.
After his return in December 2014, a Brotherhood official sent Mahmoud a new laptop and assigned him the task of passing on the skills he had gained in Gaza to the committees’ youth via training cycles, the first of which was in Sharqiyya, followed by a session in Minya and a third in 6th of October City, Mahmoud tells his interrogators. During the last session, Mahmoud met his comrade Aboul Qassem, who was born Aboul Qassem Youssef but became known as Aboul Qassem al-Azhary. A young man in his early 20s, Aboul Qassem was born in Aswan and studied in the faculty of Islamic Missions at Al-Azhar University.
Around the same time, Mahmoud found out for the first time that he was part of a group under the command of the same Brotherhood leader who had formerly managed Brotherhood activities inside Al-Azhar University and who was now residing outside the country. During the investigations, he said that he found out that the group he was part of had been formed to execute “significant operations in the country, unlike those of the special operations committees” of the Brotherhood.
And once again, the prohibition on violence was amended, this time for the group to which Mahmoud belonged. One of the defendants says during his interrogation that the group was involved “advanced special operations, whose activities he defines as “targeting specific individuals in the police and judiciary.” One condition marked this escalation in using violence though: The targeted individuals should be responsible for “actions necessitating qassas (punishment).”
General Prosecutor Hesham Barakat was judged to be one such individual.
The decision to target the general prosecutor was taken around March 2015. Unbeknownst to Mahmoud, a surveillance team in his committee monitored the movement of Barakat’s associates between his home in Heliopolis and his office in downtown, Cairo. According to the statements several defendants gave during interrogations, this surveillance occurred over the course of two months.
Mahmoud would not learn that Barakat would be the target until May, a few weeks before the operation. None of those involved was told who the target would be either.
In May, Mahmoud received chemical substances in a residential flat in 6th of October City from a logistical support group, led by Aboul Qassem. Afraid of being found out, Mahmoud asked that the material be transported to another far away location, which ended up being a warehouse in the Hihya area in Sharqiya, rented by another defendant in the case, who was also sentenced to death. The details of the substances’ trip is recounted by all three men during their respective interrogations.
At that point, Mahmoud entered in direct communication with the head of the organization for the first time. All conversations were conducted via the LINE messaging application, because it allows for encrypted communication and the automatic deletion of conversations. The leader, who was outside the country, told Mahmoud that they were preparing to target an important figure they had not yet chosen.
He assigned Mahmoud to scout the tentative operation site. The two men continued communicating and later were joined in the conversations by the Palestinian Abu Omar, the one who Mahmoud had come to learn while in Gaza was a Hamas intelligence officer. Abu Omar suggested one of the substances to use in making the bomb to Mahmoud. Mahmoud, however, was facing a problem in making the explosive substance, and Abu Omar suggested an alternative: ammonium nitrate. Mahmoud’s interrogation before the prosecution presents a detailed, long account and specific information on how he made the explosive device. At points in the transcript, he starts to lose himself in the pleasure of the story and shows off his “experience”: He speaks of a substance called acetone peroxide and includes a passing comment that this substance is known as “Om al-Abd” among those who make explosives.
During his interrogation, Mahmoud recounts having broken his hand in the same month and having kept the cast on even after the operation. He finished preparing the substances at a farm with the help of one of his colleagues, and then transported it concealed in luggage on a train to Cairo. Mahmoud asked Aboul Qassem to meet him at Ramses Train station to help him move the substances to a flat in Sheikh Zayed.
One of the obstacles now became how to detonate the bomb remotely. The leader assigned the task to someone named Ahmed Mahrous, who was not an expert in explosive circuitry but had enough personal interest and background in engineering to carry him through the task.
Mahrous says in the prosecution’s account of the interrogation that he redesigned the electrical circuit of a car alarm system, and then met someone he did not know, a man with a cast around his hand, to whom he gave the improvised detonation device.
Aboul Qassem recounts in his testimony that the organization’s leader ordered him in mid-June to buy a car that “looked expensive.” The defendant went to a post office and convinced an employee there that a missing national ID card on display belonged to a woman who was his relative. He bought a 2007 Esperanza from Souq as-Sayarat, a used car market in Cairo, using the ID to write the contract. When the car salesman asked him for his name, he said it was Islam.
Aboul Qassem found out on June 24 that the target would be the prosecutor general. On June 26, Mahmoud finished preparing the explosive device with a colleague. On June 27, the organization’s leader informed them that the operation’s zero hour was to come the next morning, Sunday, June 28. The explosive device was then transferred to the car.
Aboul Qassem and Mahmoud met the next morning in front of the Sekka al-Hadid Sporting Club on Nasr Road, near the operation site. They were picked up by a car driven by a man in his 40s. According to Mahmoud and Aboul Qassem, the driver did not know anything about the operation.
The driver was Yasser Arafat, whom Mahmoud identified in photos presented to him by the prosecution during his interrogation. He was a former Armed Forces officer who had been granted early retirement in January 2014 upon his request. He says during his interrogation that he sympathized with the Brotherhood but was not a member.
Hours later, a call came from Cairo — “There must be action to prevent a public United Nations Security Council session on the way the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins were dispersed, and regarding the allegations made by the Muslim Brotherhood, their supporters and some rights groups about the dispersal being bloody, and about law enforcement shooting indiscriminately at demonstrators as they tried to escape,”.
Arafat tells the prosecution that he ended up in front of the sporting club after a friend asked him for a personal favor: could Arafat pick up two young men to assist them in finishing their business before they were to leave Cairo on his way to his office in Heliopolis? Arafat says in the interrogation documents that he remembers seeing a cast around the arm of the young man sitting next to him. He did not know their names, but he identified Mahmoud and Aboul Qassem in photos that the prosecution presented to him.
In the course of the journey, he asked them about their destination, and the one with the cast told him they were targeting the prosecutor general. He tells the investigators he was gripped with fear but also overcome with curiosity.
After Mahmoud and Aboul Qassem exited the car, he waited on another nearby street. Everything was ready, but the general prosecutor’s cavalcade took an alternate route. The operation was interrupted, and they left the rigged car in place.
The two men returned to Arafat’s car, and he drove away with them, according to the documents that detail their interrogations. Arafat drove them to Giza: Mahmoud to his brother Mohamed’s house in Bashteel and Aboul Qassem to his uncle’s house in Mansoureya.
When he returned home, Arafat asked his friend, the organization’s leader, to not involve him in his plans again. He sat down and wrote out the details of what had happened that day. “I was seriously thinking of informing the police,” Arafat tells investigators, but his fear of retaliation deterred him. In the end, he says he convinced himself that it was impossible that these “kids” could manage to assassinate the general prosecutor.
He was wrong, and that may cost him his life. Arafat was one of those sentenced to death on July 22.
According to Mahmoud and Aboul Qassem’s statements, the organization’s leader told them to repeat the attempt the next day, Monday, June 29. He told them that the driver from yesterday would not accompany them because he was frightened. The next morning, they headed to the site of the operation once again. Mahmoud finished preparing the last link in the bomb’s circuitry. The general prosecutor’s cavalcade took the route they needed.
The “kids” had succeeded in their attempt.
Mahmoud went to his eldest brother Mohamed’s house. He showed him the footage of the operation. He asked if he could sleep, and if his brother could get rid of the two remotes they had used to trigger the car alarm detonator in the operation. Mohamed disposed of one, but he decided to keep the other on a keychain as a souvenir of the moment of victory.
It was a striking success: a group of beginners had targeted one of the most important state figures inside the bounds of the capital. Barakat had been efficiently scouted. A large quantity of explosives had been transported easily across several governorates until it reached its target. And the general prosecutor alone had been killed.
And with this success, Mahmoud garnered the trust of the organization’s leader, who started assigning him to produce and prepare several explosive devices of varying strengths to make them available for others.
In November 2015, Mahmoud made two explosive devices, rigged a car with one of them and put the other in a delivery box on a motorcycle for an operation that would be undertaken by the same organization. But he did not know toward what end his work contributed. He would later find out that the car and the motorcycle detonated while en route killing their drivers, according to the account he gives in his interrogation. What he did not know was that the coordinator of the operation, who was not among those killed in the blast, was his brother Mohamed.
Mohamed was a role model in his village. Well versed in Islamic sciences, he offered his colleagues religious lessons. He was the reason one of the defendants from the same village joined the Brotherhood. That defendant recalls in the documents that detail his interrogation that he wished to become like “Dr. Mohamed al-Ahmady. Everyone loves him and speaks well of him.”
He was born in 1984. As all young doctors do, he divided his work between a government health clinic in Warraq, Giza and a private hospital in Cairo’s First Settlement.
The defendant from Mohamed’s village says during his interrogation that he knew nothing of Mohamed’s activity, except that he was a member of the Brotherhood and that Mohamed was in charge of his usra, the organizational Brotherhood cell where members meet each week to study the Quran, other religious teachings and organizational doctrines. The defendant adds that Mohamed instructed them on the Brotherhood path toward change: bringing up good muslim individuals who would go on to form Muslim families that would become a majority population in a Muslim society. This was the last step before a Muslim state could achieve the ultimate goal of ustathiat al-alam (dominion over the world).
He suffered gunshot wounds during the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in which left him bedridden for a few months. He tells the prosecution that he saw a helicopter fire indiscriminately at protesters during the dispersal.
He learned of the developments of special operations work from his younger brother Mahmoud and a number of his friends. He recounts to the prosecution his brother’s travel to Arish in September 2014. Mahmoud communicated with him from Gaza and told him what he was doing there. Three months later, Mahmoud returned. “He was terse with me in speech and did not tell me any of the details,” Mohamed says in the interrogation documents.
In February 2015, Mohamed received a message from a former college colleague living outside Egypt who asked him to join a special operations committee in Cairo. The former colleague connected him to what Mohamed tells the prosecution was a “very strange” person.
“His hair was long and he was wearing a long necklace,” he says in the interrogation, adding that he was surprised to be introduced to a person who “looked this way.” The former colleague of the organization’s leader was the man who would later supervise the assassination of the general prosecutor carried out by Mahmoud, Mohamed’s younger brother.
The organization’s activity calmed down for a couple of weeks after Barakat was killed. Their marked success cursed them with ambition. They monitored a number of other significant targets during the months that followed, including Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy and the Israeli ambassador to Cairo (his name is Haim Koren, but none of them knew it).
The police arrest campaign also intensified in these months, and a large number of people from the organization were brought down, notably those based in Sharqiya. Mohamed tells the prosecution that this was what pushed him to consider carrying out an operation to relieve these pressures: distract the police by going on the offensive.
Mohamed communicated with the organization’s leader outside the country and suggested that they target the Central Security Forces vehicles that had pursued protesters in the city of Abu Kebir in Sharqiya. Accordingly, the organization monitored the vehicles’ movements and found out they often stopped in one of the squares on Fridays, the day of the week when marches would start.
The organization’s activity calmed down for a couple of weeks after Barakat was killed. Their marked success cursed them with ambition.
The usual plan was hatched: They’d place a car and motorcycle rigged with explosives in the square and detonate them on the morning of Friday, November 6, 2015. Mohamed sent two members of his group to pick up the car and the motorcycle and carry out the execution of the operation. On the way, the two explosives detonated and killed the men carrying them. On the morning of the next day, Mohamed was arrested from his workplace, the government health clinic in Warraq. Security forces confiscated his phone and wallet, but they left the keychain and the souvenir it carried. This is what Mohamed says in the prosecution’s documents detailing his interrogation. What he did not know was that the person who made and sent the explosives which killed his colleagues was his brother Mahmoud.
The organization behind the successful assassination of the prosecutor general and failed Abu Kebir operation worked secretively and through clusters which allowed the two brothers to participate in the execution of the same operation without knowing or meeting each other. The credit for this goes to the organization’s leader: Yehia Moussa.
Yehia is 33 years old. He was born in Sharqiya. He worked as a teacher in the faculty of medicine at Al-Azhar University and served as the official spokesperson for the Health Ministry under former President Mohamed Morsi. He was not one of the Brotherhood’s public figures. In fact, he was only known for one public exchange he had with Egyptian State TV after 61 people were killed in clashes between supporters of Morsi and the Armed Forces around the Republican Guards headquarters on July 8, 2013. Yehia described the security forces’ assault on protesters as a “full-fledged massacre.” After that, the ministry released a statement denying that Yehia spoke in its name and announced its intent to sue him for impersonating its spokesperson.
Yehia was injured once during the Republican Guard events and again during the Rabea sit-in dispersal. As it did with others, the violent dispersal of the Rabea sit-in, which according to official estimations, saw the killing of 624 civilians, left an indelible mark on him. “My brothers and friends were killed before my eyes in the Republican Guards clashes, at Manassa, Rabea, Ramses and 6th of October,” Yehia tells Mada Masr in an email interview from Istanbul, referring to sites where Brotherhood protesters suffered a high number of causalities in clashes with security forces in the summer of 2013. He says that he and many others “rethought the nature of the current struggle, its tools, its avenues and its management” after the Brotherhood’s failure in what he called the first phase of resistance to the military coup, a time period he puts at between June 2013 and the January 25 revolutionary anniversary protests in 2014.
By this time, the Muslim Brotherhood had gradually shifted from sit-ins and local marches to what they termed hirak thawry (revolutionary mobilization). But the contours of this mobilization were not clear, and therefore it was subject to whim and individual interpretation. A committee was formed to manage the Brotherhood after the expiration of the Guidance Bureau’s mandate in December 2013. A source inside the Brotherhood, with knowledge of organizational details of the previous years and who lives outside of Egypt, explains that the different leaders of the committee accepted a minimum level of violence: the violence of self-defense.
But the foreclosure of the political horizon and the continuation of a state violence against the Brotherhood pushed many to revisit the question of the acceptable degree of violence, a matter that generated divisions. After mid-2014, these disputes ended with a rupture that visibly split the Brotherhood into two entities.
The Brotherhood current that favored the use of force institutionally adopted the new violent approach in September 2014 under the leadership of Mohamed Kamal, a member of the outgoing Guidance Bureau. The Brotherhood source says that Kamal and his supporters started to rally some of the Brotherhood administrative offices that made up the group’s regional chapters in governorates across Egypt to their vision.
Their sphere of influence was concentrated in the governorates of Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Giza and Alexandria, with varying degrees of communication and influence over other offices. By January 24, 2015, the eve of the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Kamal’s violence current within the Brotherhood announced that it had founded two groups to put forth a new strategy of “resistance”: the Revolutionary Punishment Committee and the Popular Resistance Front.
But Yehia decided to move forward with a third group, which was organizationally and dynamically unique. According to the source inside the Brotherhood, Yehia saw that, given the surrounding conditions, centralized special operations could lead to a depletion of resources. He also thought it would be easy for the security apparatus to apprehend operation leaders and coordinators. “Unification around goals, with decentralization of leadership and execution,” Yehia writes to Mada Masr in explaining his way of doing “resistance.”
“Yehia has a great theoretical and organizational mentality and was convinced his group would be negatively affected by the internal clash over control within the Brotherhood,” says the source inside the Brotherhood. This drove him to establish “a third current, outside the Brotherhood and outside even Kamal’s current.”
After he had begun contacting and putting together cadres in the summer of 2014, Yehia’s attempts began to crystallize into an organization in February 2015, according to the defendants’ accounts in the interrogation documents. The Brotherhood source explains that Yehia depended primarily on a group of Al-Azhar students, over which he had assumed organizational responsibility in the past. “Kids with hearts of steel,” the source says to describe them.
Because Yehia was not prominent among the Brotherhood leadership before he left Egypt, he seems to have depended on his direct circle of contacts: Mohamed al-Ahmady, M.D. and former study colleague; retired army officer Yasser Arafat, whose wife Basma Refaat, M.D., was Yehia’s former work colleague. Mahmoud al-Ahmady, Aboul Qassem al-Azhary and Ahmed Mahrous came from the Al-Azhar University students Yehia had previously managed.
The source inside the Brotherhood notes that Yehia’s dependence on Al-Azhar students made it easier for him to expand the organization in geographical scale. The students had come to Cairo to study, but they went back to their respective governorates. And most of them had suffered directly or indirectly from the violence during the state’s dispersal of Brotherhood sit-ins.
Yehia planned to run and manage them from Turkey, where he had settled after leaving Egypt a few months beforehand. There was coordination with similar groups inside Kamal’s violent front within the Brotherhood, but he would not risk organizational integration.
The confessions that the state secured reveal a glimpse of the organizational structure that Yehia put together. Working under him is a man whose codename is “Fox.” No one has ever met him, and his real name is not known.
Otherwise, the organization’s leadership is made up of 10 branches spread over five geographical sectors. Each branch contains three groups, each of which contains several members. Several of the defendants describe it as a “cluster system” during their interrogation. Each group has a leader who communicates with the center of the organization, Yehia himself. All messages are encrypted, and the members do not know each other. They exchange codewords when they meet for the first time, and, in the event one of them is arrested, he is advised to withstand torture for at least 48 hours to allow the members of his group to flee.
Secrecy was of paramount importance for Yehia. He was careful to a point where he did not claim responsibility for any operation the organization undertook. Perhaps because of this he did not have to, at the time, choose a name for the organization.
On one of these occasions, this secrecy provoked Yehia’s brother-in-law, a member of the organization. “We have no presence in practical reality,” the puzzled brother-in-law says he told Yehia, according to his interrogation documents. “We have not carried out any operations except for the Abu Kebir incident, which failed.” Yehia had to tell him that they had undertaken several operations, among them the assassination of the prosecutor general. The brother-in-law had participated in the preparations for the operation months prior, when he rented, according to the narrative presented in the case files, the farm on which Mahmoud made the explosive material.
The members of Yehia’s group did not seem to know clearly that their leader was running an independent organization that had its own agenda. For them, they were part of the violent front inside the Brotherhood led by Kamal.
When the prosecution asks Mohamed about the Brotherhood leadership during his interrogation, he explains that leadership after the military coup became secret. “But what is known in the Brotherhood is that Dr. Mohamed Kamal is responsible for special operation committees on a national level,” Mohamed says.
He adds that special committee assignments came using regular organizational methods in the first stage after the coup. “In the last period, it was not clear where the assignments came from,” he qualifies during his interrogation.
His younger brother Mahmoud, similarly, did not find out he was a member in the group run by Yehia until he had returned from his training period in Gaza, according to his interrogation.
But there was clumsiness too. Members of the organization observed instructions of secrecy while working, but they bragged to their friends of some of what they had done, exposing dangerous details.
A lack of practical experience was also obvious in the details of the confessions that the different defendants gave. On one occasion, Aboul Qassem went on an adventure to transport TNT, only for Mahmoud to discover it was counterfeit. They used a middleman to buy a firearm of some sort, but they received another. They paid LE8,000 to one of their uncles to make a counterfeit passport, and he robbed them. One of the members of the surveillance team lost track of a cavalcade he was assigned to surveil because he was distracted by a football match being shown at a café across the street.
“If this qassas (punishment) did not have any legitimacy, then nothing on this earth has any legitimacy,” Yehia says. He wishes, and “expects” that all those who have participated in murder and bloodshed meet similar fates.
The leadership of the organization paid all the necessary expenses for it to continue functioning. It paid money to rent apartments for members, provided substances, weapons, equipment and training. The original source of the money is not clear, but defendants’ confessions tell of regular transfers of varying amounts through a number of people. Not all the links in the money transfer chain were aware of their interrelation. A number of defendants, among them Basma Refaat, Yasser’s wife and Yehia’s former work colleague, say they transferred or paid money they thought was destined for charity work.
Meanwhile, the ambiguous relationship between Yehia’s group and the violence front inside the Brotherhood led by Kamal was not apparent except in the aftermath of the success of Barakat’s assassination, the Brotherhood source adds.
On the same day as the operation and after state apparatuses had pointed fingers at the Muslim Brotherhood, Kamal’s front released a statement, in which it emphasized its “rejection of murder.” The statement blamed the assassination on the regime, “which instigated violence and transformed the Egyptian scene from a promising democratic experiment into a field of mass killings, violence and blood.” It warned there would be no way to “stop the bloodshed except by ending the military coup and empowering the revolution.”
Yet, it is not clear whether Yehia planned and executed Barakat’s assassination behind the back of the Brotherhood factions, including those loyal to the violent front led by Kamal, or if that front was aware of Yehia’s responsibility and his group’s execution of the plan but wanted to distance itself from it.
In his correspondence with Mada Masr, Yehia denies his relation to the prosecutor general’s assassination. “I was in Turkey the day he was killed, so it’s inconceivable I had a part in it.”
Who killed him then?
“That man had more than 2,000 families seeking vengeance for the murder of their sons by burning, death sentence or torture,” writes Yehia. “And they’ve exacted their vengeance.”
Was his murder legitimate then?
“If this qassas (punishment) did not have any legitimacy, then nothing on this earth has any legitimacy,” Yehia says. He wishes, and “expects” that all those who have participated in murder and bloodshed meet similar fates.
In early 2015, Yehia’s organization felt the need for an Islamic intellectual framework to support its activities, and the justification for violence was found in the old concept of Islamic jurisprudence known as daf al-sael, which grants a person the right to retaliate for an assault carried out by an assailant. After his arrest and during investigations, Mohamed asserted that violent acts did not represent the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood but were only a temporary measure.
However, Yehia uses a political rather than religious rhetoric to sanction violence. He tells Mada Masr that all state apparatuses lost their constitutional and legal legitimacy after the “kidnapping of an elected president of the republic” on July 3, 2013. “It became a right of the people to reclaim their sovereignty and squandered will and to oppose any assailant who stood in the way,” he says.
For him, the use of violence, which he calls quwwa (power), is not only a question of permissibility but of political expediency that requires the consideration of manifold factors – “time, methodology and proportionality” – in light of the political context and its implications. Unlike the traditional proponents of armed Islamist activity, Yehia’s group was not preoccupied with circling around the question of whether the ruler was apostate in order to justify the use of violence.
“When we target a specific person, we target them for their actions and not their creed,” Mohamed tells the prosecution during his interrogation, clearly articulating a version similar to Yehia’s framing of violence. The most important thing, he adds, is that “there is evidence that the [targeted] individual has killed or has participated in the Rabea dispersal.”
For Mohamed, this was a necessary caveat, as a large group of angry youth had “began denouncing police officers as kafir.” Because of this, another defendant is careful to explain to investigators: “I am not like Daesh.” The prosecution says the defendants circulated among themselves a book called Responses to and Fault Lines of the Islamic State and its Proponents that helped strengthen this line of thought. None of them charged the current regime with apostasy when asked about the motives behind their involvement. They only said that the general prosecutor was the one who issued the decision to disperse the sit-in, or at least that’s what they heard trumpeted out of megaphones as security forces dispersed Rabea. In Yehia’s own words: “The murder of the one destined to the grave, the mortal [Hesham Barakat] equals one soul of the thousands he was involved in murdering.”
Vengeance aside, there was a broader political aim. According to Mohamed’s interrogation documents, the main purpose was to “bring down the military coup and restore legitimacy, or to plunge [the country] into a deteriorating situation.” Therefore, success in targeting one of the symbols of the Egyptian state in the heart of the capital was a major accomplishment.
The language and ideals of Yehia’s organization mix traditional Brotherhood literature with an attempt to deal with the crisis of the political reality. They rest on a straightforward conception about the way the state and society work. During his interrogation, one defendant imagines that “If 50 of the army’s leadership were killed, it’d be over, because we, as a people, applaud the powerful. The army, as soon as it sees its leadership is dead, would know that we are strong and would fear us.”
References like Guerrilla Warfare stir their imagination. Other confiscated books include The Art of War and Street Fighting, as well as references that marshal critiques of Islamist movements. Among these is the book Islam and the Foundations of Governance by Ali Abdel Raziq, The Other Side of the Islamic Caliphate by Soliman Fayyad, and Roots of the Islamic Fundamentalism Movement in Contemporary Egypt by Ahmed Salah al-Mala.
Investigators also found organizational papers that rely on narrative to draw analogies between the contemporary and historical “nature of struggle,” a common feature and technique of Brotherhood literature, as well. “The alarm rang at exactly 3:30 am on Friday morning and its melody was loud, for Mohamed purposely set it to the tune of the fast tempo song Masr Islamiya (Egypt is Islamic) so that he could wake up, because he had come back from the march tired after police chases,” reads one of the narratives the investigators found.
The protagonist of the story goes to pray fajr. After prayer, he asks Mr. Ali about the reason behind the arrests. “Mr. Ali was quiet for a moment and said: My dear ones, what is happening in terms of the struggle between the proponents of legitimacy and the followers of the coup is a cycle of the cycles of ongoing struggle between right and wrong.” Mr. Ali, the didactic preaching voice of the story, continues to connect the dots. The internal struggle is related to a Zionist conspiracy to defeat Islam. According to Mr. Ali, Israeli soldiers surrounded Moshe Dayan after entering Jerusalem in 1967 and chanted in rhyming Arabic: “Put the apricots on the apples. Mohamed’s religion has disappeared and gone.”
No party claimed responsibility for the assassination of the prosecutor general. The Popular Resistance page in Giza, which was affiliated with the Kamal current in the Brotherhood, claimed responsibility for the attack on the day of the assassination, but, shortly after, the page deleted the post and denied involvement.
Security apparatuses announced the arrest of the page administrator, Mahmoud al-Adawy, but his name is not among the defendants in the case, which bolsters the mistake of the page’s claim. In a two-day period, 20 admins of “Popular Resistance” pages were arrested to no avail. On three separate occasions during the next few months, the police announced, wrongfully, the arrest or murder of the person responsible for Barakat’s assassination.
The investigation team’s interest turned to Hesham Ashmawy, a former Saka Forces officer in the Egyptian Armed Forces before he was discharged. After that, he joined Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the Sinai-based militant group that would later pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and take the name Province of Sinai. Then, he announced the founding of Al-Mourabitoun, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. He attempted to assassinate former Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim in September 2013. The attempt resembled the methodology of the prosecutor general’s assassination, but the difference is that Ashmawy’s attempt failed.
Days after the incident, on July 16, 2015, the first thread of the organization was arrested: Ahmed al-Degwy, the “strange person” with the long hair and the chain that Mohamed met. Over the course of his interrogation, Degwy confesses to having a relationship with a number of groups over a period of nearly two years.
He was asked about the prosecutor general’s assassination, and he denied knowing any details about it. “They wouldn’t believe me,” Degwy says during the investigations. He was severely tortured in an attempt to extract information. But eventually the investigators believed him. He was presented to the prosecution on September 1, 2015, facing allegations in another case involving special operations committees. His name was added to the list of defendants in the general prosecutor case only after the entire group had been apprehended, and the prosecution’s previous investigations into him were added to the case files.
The second thread came loose by coincidence. Mohamed was arrested on November 7, 2015, a day after the failure of the Abu Kebir operation. Security forces made the arrest in the context of pursuing individuals involved in special operations committees in the Sharqiya Governorate, but the National Security Agency officers discovered a treasure trove of information regarding Yehia’s group. Thus, his illegal forced disappearance was extended, and he was not presented to the prosecution until the rest of the group were caught.
The arrest of Aboul Qassem allowed the investigators to set up ambushes for his colleagues.
A third coincidence occurred on January 17, 2016, when security forces detained a suspected individual at the airport. A member of Yehia’s organization, he was on a surveillance operation targeting the Israeli ambassador and confessed to what he knew during interrogations.
The arrest campaign to apprehend those responsible for the general prosecutor’s assassination began on February 17, 2016 with the raid of an apartment belonging to alleged members of the organization in Cairo’s Marg area. Two days later, Aboul Qassem was arrested in Cairo’s Hussein neighborhood. When police forces went to his apartment, they also arrested a person living with him.
The National Security Agency investigation team had obtained a photo of Aboul Qassem hours after the assassination of the general prosecutor, but it took them seven months to establish his identity. They first went to the house of the man who sold the car used in the operation and asked him about a Sherry Esperanza A11 that he had sold recently. He told them that he sold it to a man named Islam and showed them the car’s papers. He recounted the times he had met Islam. The first time was at a stationary store near Souq as-Sayarat, the used car market, to photocopy the sale contract. The other time happened in front of a hospital in Nasr City. Both locations were caught by CCTV, and the investigation team managed to secure images of the meetings.
The arrest of Aboul Qassem allowed the investigators to set up ambushes for his colleagues. At least three were arrested after Aboul Qassem asked to meet them in the three days following the date of his arrest.
On February 23, Mahmoud took a friend and partner in the operation, according to the charges filed, to the State Council to follow up on complaints about his brother Mohamed’s disappearance several months earlier. The two men were arrested in front of the building.
The defendants continued to be arrested as new investigations yielded further information. Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar held a press conference on March 6, 2016 to announce the fall of the assassination group, in addition to accusing the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas of carrying out the attack. The ministry distributed a video documenting the confessions of several of the defendants.
The last arrest in the case was made on March 29.
Interrogations of the defendants continued from early March until early May 2016. The prosecution merged the failed Abu Kebir operation case with that of the assassination of the prosecutor general and referred the joint-case to trial on May 8. The prosecution charged 67 people, 51 of whom had been detained. One of the fugitive defendants was Kamal, the head of the violent front inside the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was killed in a confrontation with the police in October 2016, according to the state’s official account.
Yehia was tried in absentia, as he was living in Turkey, and has been sentenced to death. According to the numbers the prosecutor presented in his argument in court, four individuals, one of whom was unidentified, carried out the assassination, and they were aided by 13 others.
In addition to the main defendants, there was a larger group of defendants who had participated in the assassination without knowing that they were implicated. Basma was one of those. She explains during the course of her interrogation that she transported messages between her husband Yasser and Yehia. She says she helped Yehia provide sums of money to charity. Her husband did not tell her of the time that he drove two individuals who worked for Yehia in their first attempt to assassinate the general prosecutor. Basma was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and her husband received a death sentence.
Unlike the detailed confessions attributed to a number of defendants, some insisted on denying all charges from the start or offered an alternative account of their involvement in the case. Of those that ventured this response was Ahmed Hamdy. He begins his testimony by saying that he was “neither a member of the Brotherhood, nor even a sympathizer. I used to smoke hash until recently.” He had one experience with the Rabea sit-in: He stood in one of the surrounding streets, smoked a joint and left. But he says he knows the reason for his arrest. “I think my name came up in this because of the man named Abu Bakr, and, when I went to Minya and procured weapons,” he says. “But I swear this was because I had hoped to make money.” He says in the interrogation documents that he took a friend with him on this adventure, but neither the prosecution, nor the court requested to question him. Abu Bakr is Yehia’s brother-in-law who was also sentenced to death. Ahmed received a life sentence.
The youngest of the defendants in age is Ismail Negm al-Din. He was born in 1997 in the village of Ayn Ghaseen in the governorate of Ismailia. He has two brothers. Both are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was close to his mother, who was a teacher and sold vegetables and clothing at the market after her teaching hours. He tells investigators during his interrogation that she insisted on caring for them despite disputes with her husband. “Several times I saw him beat and humiliate her,” Ismael says. His father divorced his mother, but she continued to live with him.
In addition to the main defendants, there was a larger group of defendants who had participated in the assassination without knowing that they were implicated.
Ismail visited the Rabea sit-in. He was 16 years old at the time. He recounts to the prosecutor his observations of the sit-in, including collaboration among participants in the sit-in and their observance of prayers. He makes negative comments about some of the protesters who were urinating between buildings. The “smell of sewage was difficult,” he says.
He took part in a protest in Ismailia city after the dispersal of the sit-in, where he says he saw a bullet pass through the head of a protester standing beside him. “I panicked at the time and kept screaming.” As he was escaping, another protester was shot in the foot. He tried to help others in getting across a wall and into an ambulance. “I felt oppressed,” he says. In the next few months, his two brothers were arrested.
Anger filled the boy’s heart. He planned to establish a vengeance group with his friends that would target police officers and their allies. They called the group the Majhulun (Anonymous) Movement and burned four police vehicles, one caged vehicle and a café. They documented the four operations in recordings on a channel, which is still available, on YouTube. “Anyone put under the same pressures I was put in could have done the same,” he says during his interrogation.
Some time after, security forces arrested a number of his colleagues in the nascent movement. Thinking that the police was pursuing him, he left school and decided to disappear. His mother died in July 2014. His dad became paralyzed, but he couldn’t visit his family because he feared he would be arrested. He spent each night for seven months in a hut on a farm his father owned. During a visit to one of his friends, he met a group of young men from Cairo. They found out his brothers were detained. They sympathized with him and told him to call them if he needed anything.
Later, he decided to move to the capital and reached out to one of these men. The man found him a job in a Marg mobile phone store, owned by the man’s relative, as well as a bed in his nearby apartment for LE100 per month.
This man was a member of a Cairo-based cell in Yehia’s organization. When security forces raided his apartment, they arrested everyone, including Ismail. He found himself a defendant in the prosecutor general assassination case, about which he knew nothing.
He was tortured and spent his first three days in detention standing up without any sleep. He recounts in his statements to the investigators that a police officer told him during the interrogation that “torture is a means, not an end.” The officer also told him: “Be smart, and talk.”
When the prosecutor asked him if he had anything to add at the end of one of the interrogation, he answered affirmatively. “I want those who read these papers to understand the conditions that drove me to this, and that I was young at the time,“ says Ismail. “I want to start over and go back to see my father and plan for my future.”
Ismail was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Like Ismail, a number of defendants found themselves involved in the case of the general prosecutor’s assassination without evidence of their participation or knowledge of the operation. It was only misplaced fortune that led them to visit or meet their friends at the same time as the police raid. There was a microbus driver from Aswan named Amr Shawky. Two passengers asked him to drive them from the front of the train station, and the police arrested him along with them en route. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The brother of one of the defendants, who was sentenced to death, tells Mada Masr that he too probably would have become a defendant in the case had his travel with his brother to Cairo been on the day of his arrest.
With the exception of three defendants, all of the others charged say they were arrested weeks before appearing before the prosecution.
In the case files, the prosecution documented the defendants’ uniform accounts that they had been severely tortured. Defendants told the prosecution about bruises and injuries when they appeared for interrogation. The prosecution ordered the defendants to be examined by the forensic medical office, but there was no response. On some occasions, the prosecution reiterated its request after it was ignored. But the file that it submitted to the court did not include the results of these requests, casting doubt as to whether the examinations took place.
With the exception of three defendants, all of the others charged say they were arrested weeks before appearing before the prosecution. Ahmed Mahrous says during his interrogation that he was arrested from his workplace at a company in Hurghada. He was presented to the prosecution for the first time on March 5, 2016. In his statements in the case file, he presents the name of the Hurghada company and two employees who witnessed the incident: “So I could prove through them that I was arrested on February 22.” Neither the prosecution, nor the court called these potential witnesses. Similarly Mohamed al-Ahmady insists he was arrested at the government health unit in Warraq four months before he was presented to the prosecution. The prosecution did not seek to ask whether there was truth to his claims.
In the days following the incident, the Nozha prosecution, which had participated in the early stages of the investigation, requested information from Egypt’s three primary cellular companies about “calls made from and to the geographical range of the site of the operation [Barakat’s assassination], between 8 am and 12 pm.” It also requested information from the administration for police communications regarding who had received a portable two-way radio receiver found at the site, as well as about confiscating footage from surrounding surveillance cameras.
State Security Prosecution recorded in the case file that it had received the results of the cellular phone enquiry, but it did not receive information on the enquiry into the two-way radio receiver and the camera footage was not mentioned. However, defense lawyers repeatedly said that the prosecution did not present the results of the cellular company enquiry to court.
Once the trial started, defendants and their counsel asked the court to annul their “confessions,” insisting that they had been extracted through coercion.
Montaser al-Zayat, the lawyer representing 18 of the main defendants, says he documented additional instances in the records of the court sessions where the prosecution decided to withhold this information from the court. The prosecution was satisfied to build its case on the confessions of defendants and National Security Agency investigations. These investigations relied on secret sources which could not be verified.
In an interview with Mada Masr, Zayat accuses the prosecution of bias against the defendants, an allegation which he says was confirmed to him after one of the prosecutors described the defendants in his opening statement as dogs.
According to Zayat, all the lawyers who attended the early interrogation sessions with the defendants were assigned by the Lawyers Syndicate, as defendants were not allowed to contact their families or choose their own lawyers until weeks of interrogations had passed. Given this absence, Zayat argues that the arrest procedures and the interrogation of defendants should be annulled.
Once the trial started, defendants and their counsel asked the court to annul their “confessions,” insisting that they had been extracted through coercion. In documents detailing the final interrogation sessions, the defendants retract the accounts they had given, even those who had denied involvement from the start. According to the defendants, the recantations came after they were sure they were leaving National Security Agency custody and going to prison, away from their torturers.
According to Egyptian jurisprudence established by a Court of Cassation ruling, which Zayat relayed in his argument before the court, “a confession which is reliable is one that is voluntary, and is not considered so if given under the influence of coercion or threat or fear resulting from an unlawful act, even if it is true, whatever the extent of this threat or coercion may be.” However, the court declined to throw out the confessions secured during the interrogations.
The prosecution did not present the defendants with evidence or witness testimonies in any of the sessions except once, where the car dealer recognized Aboul Qassem (and the latter asked for his forgiveness for implicating him).
The trial took place over 36 sessions and lasted for one year, concluding on July 22 when the verdicts were issued. The defendants have a final opportunity to appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation, per the April amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code.
Special operations committees were subject to consecutive security crackdowns at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, which significantly destabilized them. Yehia’s organization was one of those affected, with his main group collapsing by February 2016.
The repeated actions carried out by security forces brought special committee activities down by more than half their volume over the next months, according to statistics from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s report on the security situation in Egypt during the second quarter of 2016.
The period of quiet continued for a short time. In July 2016, a new militant group called Hassm announced its formation. In the next month, another group called Lewaa al-Thawra also announced its formation, a move welcomed by Hassm, and then carried out a number of operations, the most prominent of which was the October 2016 assassination of Brigadier General Adel Ragaei, the chief of the Armed Forces’ Ninth Armored Division. However, the group lapsed into dormancy after the first few months. The group recently reemerged in an online interview, denying affiliation with the Brotherhood.
What is certain is Yehia’s pledge to his brothers and friends whom he watched die during the dispersal of the sit-in and its aftermath: “I will not abandon their right to vengeance as long as I live.”
Hassm’s activity has remained present throughout. The source inside the Muslim Brotherhood notes that the movements of Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra are a revival of previous iterations. But the details of the nature of these new organizations are yet to emerge. What is certain is Yehia’s pledge to his brothers and friends whom he watched die during the dispersal of the sit-in and its aftermath: “I will not abandon their right to vengeance as long as I live.”
Translated by Omar El Adl