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Locked Up Abroad

Meet the two innocent Canadians beaten up and left to rot for months in Cairo's most notorious prison.

CAIRO — One August morning, three police trucks pulled up to Cairo's notorious Tora Prison. The trucks -- packed full of people -- were left to cook in the searing August heat. Some prisoners defecated and urinated on themselves; one young man became delirious. After four hours, the doors were opened, and Tora's infamous "Welcome Party" began.

Inside one of the trucks were two Canadian citizens, filmmaker John Greyson and emergency doctor Tarek Loubani. The two men were detained for 50 days without charge after being arrested, along with roughly 600 other people, during an Aug. 16 protest against the current military-backed government. They were finally allowed to leave Egypt last week -- but before they left, they spoke exclusively to Foreign Policy about their experience within Tora Prison. Their story paints a grim picture of Egypt's Kafka-esque judicial system and the brutal tactics employed by the security forces to silence critics and foreign observers.

The Tora "Welcome Party" is a hazing ritual designed to break the will of new inmates. The Canadians were chased out of their van toward two lines of police officers, who were armed with electric prods and batons.

"We were made to run the gantlet," Greyson said. It was a systematic and well-rehearsed assault: "They kick you in the kidneys so it's effective but doesn't break ribs; they hit you in the face without leaving cuts or bruises."

The prisoners were then forced to crouch -- bent double in a stress position -- and made to watch as another truckload of inmates was brutalized. They were then turned around so they could only hear the prisoners' screams as officers edged toward them, weapons raised.

Loubani said the two were singled out for a special beating. "It shocked the others," he said. "John is a respectable-looking man in his 50s; he is Canadian -- but they just went for him."

The ordeal left a neat boot print in the center of Greyson's back for a week.

It could have been even worse for the two foreigners. Some 36 prisoners in another police truck heading to Abu Zaabal Prison, outside Cairo, rioted against the unbearable heat in the vehicle and ended up killing a guard. The prison officers took their revenge by burning them alive in their van, or so the guards later boasted to the Canadians. At the time of the incident, security officials said the prisoners died of asphyxiation after tear gas was fired into the crowded police truck. Two Western prisoners have also died in Egyptian prisons in the last month: A French citizen was reportedly beaten to death by his fellow inmates, while an American was found dead on Oct. 13 in an apparent suicide.

Greyson and Loubani had been caught up in the security crackdown that followed the violent dispersal of two Cairo-based sit-ins in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, which resulted in the deaths of at least 600 people. Just the day before, on Aug. 15, the two Canadians' plan had been to travel to Gaza, where Loubani was due to teach basic first-aid and Greyson was set to film him. But Egypt had shut its borders with the Palestinian territory in the unrest following Morsy's ouster: With no way to enter, the men decided to observe a pro-Morsy protest in downtown Cairo's Ramses Square.

The rally started peacefully enough. But when the pair heard the first crack of gunfire and protesters brought the first bloodied body back from the front lines, Loubani, an experienced conflict physician, "snapped into doctor's mode," Greyson said. Loubani started to treat the injured on the floor of nearby al-Fateh Mosque, while Greyson filmed.

It is unclear who started the fight that day. The authorities claim protesters opened fire on a nearby police station, while Morsy supporters say they were gunned down as they peacefully demonstrated. Loubani and Greyson's only concern, however, was the stream of critically injured people.

Once the clashes died down, the Canadians, their trousers soaked with blood, made their way back to their hotel through the warren of barriers and blockades. At the last checkpoint, in view of their hotel, they asked for assistance from a group of men in civilian dress. This proved to be a terrible mistake.

The men were plainclothes police officers. Spotting the camera and the stethoscope, they swiftly took Greyson and Loubani to the nearby Abdeen police station. The Canadians were paraded in front of a waiting Egyptian TV crew, along with a terrified Syrian-Egyptian schoolteacher, as evidence that foreign agents connected with Hamas were guiding the protests.

"They wanted to splash on Egyptian TV that they had caught Hamas agents," Greyson said. "Tarek had to show them how to get an audio level, as they didn't know how to use their own equipment. They didn't have a translator, so Tarek was handed the microphone. It was textbook Monty Python."

The subsequent interrogation by the police was just as bizarre: "They kept asking us what the 'secret password' was," Loubani added.

The pair was convinced that it was all just a horrible mistake and that they would be released in 24 hours. Instead, they were held for seven weeks. Canadian Embassy staff visited the two men shortly after their arrest, and the Canadian ambassador publicly called on the Egyptian government to explain why they were being detained.

The conditions within Tora Prison were deplorable. Greyson and Loubani were shaved bald, stripped, and thrown in a cockroach-infested 3-by-10-meter cell with 36 other prisoners, who slept on the bare concrete floor.

In one corner of the tiny cell was a squat toilet with a tap. "It became our kitchen, bathroom, and shower," said Greyson, who slept next to the rubbish pile. In the first month, they were allowed just six half-hour sessions out of their cell in the exercise yard.

A strong bond developed between the 38 incarcerated men, who entertained each other with nightly talks. "We had lectures on pasteurization, industrial agricultural, how to improve your CV.… I gave a talk on CPR," Loubani said.

The pair even performed a tragicomic sketch that reconstructed the circumstances of their arrest. Greyson, who doesn't speak Arabic, gave English lessons and learned calligraphy.

Using only some basic tools and their ingenuity, the inmates tried to devise some creature comforts. One 18-year-old farmer made a basic heating device from nails, wire, and bottle tops, allowing him to brew tea for his cellmates every night. The Canadians also learned the Tora tradition of making glue from boiled macaroni fermented with sugar. "It was so strong you could hang off it," Greyson said.

This allowed them to fashion hanging baskets for their belongings from fabric cut with tuna-can lids and ropes made out of twisted pants. Anything they could not make, they would get through bribes. "The whole economy of the prison is in cigarettes; it's all about Marlboro and Merits," Loubani said.

Visitors are not allowed until day 11, when vital food, toiletries, detergent, and changes of clothing are brought in by inmates' families and shared among the group. Loubani and Greyson's relatives, however, were still in Canada and unable to visit, so they were clothed by their fellow prisoners.

Despite never formally being charged, Greyson and Loubani's detention was repeatedly extended. In desperation, they started a hunger strike, which they continued for over two weeks and only stopped after winning some concessions from their jailers. By the fifth week of their incarceration, they were moved to a smaller cell, but one with just eight people in it -- mostly second-tier leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. "We were able to bribe the guard for an hour walk each day," Loubani said.

The pair smuggled out letters detailing their treatment that circulated among foreign media and fueled a campaign calling for their release, which secured over 150,000 signatures, including those from celebrities Charlize Theron and Alec Baldwin.

On Oct. 6 at 1:30 a.m., after exactly 50 days, 3 hours, and 35 minutes, Greyson and Loubani were freed. Fearful of being sent back inside Tora Prison, they spoke about their experience, but asked that the story be held until they were safely out of Egypt. The two men were briefly prevented from leaving the country, but arrived safely in Toronto on the evening of Oct. 11.

The imprisonment left a lasting impression on the Canadian activists -- and a determination not to abandon their comrades who remain in jail. While the Egyptian government vows to continue its "war on terror," Loubani and Greyson say they will speak out about what is going on behind closed jail cell doors.

"We have this responsibility to talk," said Greyson, the night before he flew home. "But it's going to be an uphill battle to get people to listen."

Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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Blue-Eyed Jihad

An exclusive conversation with European radicals fighting for an Islamic state in Syria.

ATMEH, Syria — European jihadists in Syria have been blamed by some Syrians for ruining the purity of their revolution, held up by Bashar al-Assad's regime as a sign of that the rebels are foreign-backed radicals, and feared by Western security agencies as a potential terrorist threat. But despite all the talk about them, they rarely speak with outsiders about their beliefs and goals. So when two European jihadists agreed to speak with us, it marked the first time that fighters working with al Qaeda inside Syria explained to the world why they are doing battle in Syria and what future they imagine for the country.

The two fighters -- one of whom is an ethnic European who converted to Islam, while the other is ethnically neither European nor Arab, and was born a Muslim -- set a couple of preconditions. Their real names and countries of origin could not be published; as they put it, "Europe will do." They also wore masks during the interview, so they could not be recognized. "I still want to travel to my family in Europe," one said.

It was also strictly forbidden to name the town where the interview would take place. "You can mention somewhere in northern Sham," one of the men declared, a reference to Greater Syria -- encompassing not only modern-day Syria but also Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq -- that existed in the early Islamic period.

Getting to the location of the interview posed another problem. In a sign of how perilous Syria has become, al Qaeda-affiliated militants man a checkpoint slightly more than a mile outside the Atmeh refugee camp along the border with Turkey. And there were many more such checkpoints along the way to where the two European jihadists live. With kidnappings of journalists and aid workers by rebels spiking in recent months, locals all advised against the idea of driving deeper into the country. After long deliberations, we chose to stay in Atmeh and send a trustworthy Syrian middle-man on our behalf deeper inside the country. He carried our questionnaire, a camera, and conducted the interviews.

The meetings with the European jihadists occurred separately, on two separate days in two different locations. The interviews were conducted in English, as the fighters are not fluent in Arabic.

The phenomenon of European jihadists flowing into Syria is increasingly attracting the attention of Western security agencies, which fear what they will do when they return home. According to American and European intelligence officials speaking to the New York Times, more Westerners are currently fighting in Syria than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen: The estimates range from 600 to 1,000 fighters. Their primary motivation is religion -- the vast majority are white converts to Islam or naturalized immigrants with a Muslim background.

The jihadists' religious extremism, military experience in Syria, and the ease with which they could travel around Europe and the United States make a potentially lethal cocktail. Matthew Olsen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a conference that Syria has become "the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world," and raised fears that such jihadists could return "as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States."  

Abu Talal, a blond-haired, blue-eyed fighter sporting a black balaclava, is just the sort of religious warrior that keeps Western security officials up at night. He says that he came to Syria "to help the mujahideen [jihadists] against Bashar," but refuses to say how he arrived from Europe. However, he adds that he "will visit my family [in Europe] again and then return to Syria."

In the interview, Abu Talal, who carries a gun and sits in front of a black banner used by jihadist groups, says that he has joined the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," -- the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq that is both fighting against the Assad regime and attempting to extend its "Islamic emirate" into Syria.

The ISIS, which is headed by Iraqi national Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is considered the most radical group in Syria. With bases in and around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, the northern cities of Raqqa and Aleppo, and the northwestern Turkmen Mountains, it is an extension of the al Qaeda forces that battled U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Iraq during that country's civil war.

He claims that the relationship between the ISIS and the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of more mainstream Syrian rebel groups, is good. "They are mujahideen and we are mujahideen. We ask God to guide us both to fight Bashar."

But why do many around the world see foreign jihadists as terrorists? "That is funny," Abu Talal says, "because we don't kill innocent people like the forces of Bashar do. The whole world thinks sharia [Islamic law] is bad, but that is not true. We help people.... And we will bring the sharia here -- no matter what."

The jihadists often stated their conviction that the United States will sooner or later get involved in Syria -- not to topple the Assad regime, but to target them for death. Both believe that the United States will use drones against Syrian jihadists -- just like what is happening in Pakistan or Yemen.

"I am sure the Americans will start using drones," says Abu Salman, the second European fighter, who wears a traditional Arabic shawl to hide his identity. "As soon as we get rid of the Assad regime they will send their weapons. But of course, we will fight them. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: 'The infidels will fight you as they fought me.' But God willing, we will win this fight... [E]ven if the Americans attack, we will not retreat."

Abu Salman is something of a free agent in the Syrian jihad, moving fluidly between groups depending on who needs his services. "I am involved in electronics," he says. "I cooperate with any group who needs me here. I did not join one specific group because of the nature of my work, every group needs me."  

But Abu Salman adds that he mostly works with al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, or alternatively Ahrar al-Sham and Suqoor al-Sham, militias known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law. "They are the best fighters of Islam," he explains.

Abu Salman believes that foreign jihadists in Syria have gotten a bad rap: He says he agreed to give this interview to explain to the world what foreign fighters are doing in Syria. "It doesn't matter how long you speak of what you do," he says. "If you have a beard, if you do salaat [Muslim prayers] you are considered a terrorist. The outside world doesn't understand us. They don't have our mentality. They don't know what we want."

Unlike Abu Talal, Abu Salman is willing to explain how he came to Syria. "I came from the airport [in Turkey] and went illegally through the border from Turkey into Sham," he says. "Everybody is taking this road.

The journey, however, is starting to become more difficult for foreigners. "The road is starting to get cut," Abu Salman says. "You cannot enter into Sham anymore without a Syrian passport, there are many more checks."

Abu Salman agrees with his jihadist comrade that some elements of the Free Syrian Army are good "mujahideen" -- but worries that the United States is funneling support to "bad" elements within the umbrella organization. "They [the United States] only give weapons to the worst groups; those who want democracy," he explains. "These groups operate inside the Free Syrian Army, but they even don't fight for democracy, they just steal money."

The presence of foreign jihadists is controversial among local supporters of the Syrian revolt. Foreign Islamists regularly flog or execute alleged regime supporters in Raqqa, while in Aleppo jihadists executed a Syrian youth they believed had committed blasphemy. Kidnappings of Syrians, foreign journalists, and aid workers by Islamists are on the rise. Just this week, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a well-known Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for three decades and was staunchly pro-revolution, disappeared in Raqqa.

Abu Salman knows how tenuous the jihadists' position is among the Syrian population: He is convinced that after the Assad regime's defeat, some Syrians will launch a second revolution against radical Islamist groups. "I feel this will happen," he says. "But it doesn't matter. Because the prophet peace be upon him, has said 'You will win this fight.'"

And after Abu Salman and his cohort topple Assad and crush more secular rebel groups, what then? What will become of Syria's sizeable Christian, Alawi, and Shiite minority populations?

"The minorities?" he answers. "They must just accept it. Those who do not accept it, they will be thrown out -- or they can leave."

al-Aan TV