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Who Stands Behind?

IS executioners stand close behind.

Magda holds up a portrait of her brother and two cousins, each kidnapped and later executed by Islamic State militants in Libya this year. Hamada Elrasam / Al-Masry Al-Youm

Cairo – To introduce the photograph above (unpublished until now), I was tempted to reiterate the scenes of “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” an execution video released on February 15, 2015, by militants who pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group (IS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. The five-minute video marches on with the decapitations of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Chadian man purportedly on a Libyan beach. Like me, perhaps you recall the bloody ideology gripping 42 men on camera: half of them wearing Gitmo-inspired orange jumpsuits, their lips moving in prayer with hands bound while kneeling in the sand, each of them paired with an IS executioner standing close behind.

And like me, perhaps you didn’t recognize the three men in the portrait gripped by a young woman, sister and cousin, on behalf of the other relatives depicted in the above photograph: left to right, 23-year-old Milad Makeen Zaky, 20-year-old Abanub Ayad Atiya and 24-year-old Yousef Shoukry Younan, wear galabia of their choice while smiling in a studio sometime before Christmas in December 2013, each of them paired with a duplicate of themselves receding, ascending and standing behind.

But the IS group wants both believers and non-believers around the world to see Milad, Abanub, Yousef and the other 18 hostages as criminals sentenced to death. And standing against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, with upraised knives, this is how the executioners want other enemies of their self-declared caliphate to see themselves, too: “Oh crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes, especially when you are fighting us all together. Therefore we will fight you all together,” said one of the executioners, looking directly into the camera. He added, “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”

None of this should be overlooked.

Accordingly, Cairo-based photojournalist Hamada Elrasam flips back and forth between a screen grab of the execution video and the above photograph, which he who took while on assignment in Al-Our, an Upper Egypt village and home to 13 of the then-hostages in Libya, for the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “The story of the killing of the Coptic workers is also the story of killing their families who have been waiting for the money to come… The militants didn’t just execute 21, but 21 families,” he told me, adding, “These three cousins were in Libya by choice, but there was no other choice: their families need them.”

Again, none of this should be overlooked: as Elrasam reasoned, “The pain doesn’t come to the person who is dead, but to the ones that are still alive.”

A Message From a Family of the Cross

Magda, 19, opened her eyes in the early morning and reached for her mobile phone. “I thought that maybe I had missed a call or text from Abanub,” she said, adding, “For the last eight months he’s been in Libya, and we’d talk every day… I’ve feared violence against him.” There were three missed calls from her brother. “I heard people in the street yelling, ‘They’ve been kidnapped by militants in Libya!’ He had called for help.”

From late last December to early January this year, at least 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians were kidnapped by masked gunmen in two separate attacks in Sirte, a Libyan city situated halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. Back in the village of Al-Our on January 5, two days after the news of the abduction, Magda stands behind the portrait of Milad, Abanub and Yousef, along with their mothers and aunts. Also standing behind is her younger brother, Ibrahim, 8, seen in the doorway. At the moment of Elrasam’s encounter with the family, everyone believed that the three cousins might walk back into the home; Abanub will grow old like his father.

Pointing to a couch outside of Elrasam’s frame, 60-year-old Ayad Atiya, father of Abanub, Magda and Ibrahim, said, “That’s where our son would sit and sleep. He couldn’t find any work in Egypt. Me and his mother were so worried after he left, but we didn’t have anything to give.”

Yousef, nephew of Ayad Atiya, was the focus of worry, too. His mother, Therezia, in her late forties, sitting behind the upraised portrait including her son (far right), said, “He went to Libya eight months ago after his father died. He didn’t have enough work in the village and we’re a family of five.” She added, “We need the government to help return our sons.”

On that day, Elrasam photographed this family and four more, and each of them expressed their urge to go to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs in downtown Cairo to protest. None among them, though, could afford the travel costs necessary to do so.

“The mayor of Al-Our, Amir Elooury, told me he had been begging the families to make their kids come back,” Elrasam relayed, later reciting Elooury, “‘If [IS] is doing this with Copts to provoke Sisi, we are millions of Copts in Egypt and will sacrifice a million in supporting Sisi.'” Elrasam asked Therezia, Yousef’s mother, for her response: “If our children came back, would [Elooury] pay for our families? The government doesn’t want to move for us, and we don’t have money to go protest in Cairo.”

The above photograph, then, is a still of their protest, which made it out of the village and into the capital with Elrasam.

More Messages, Signed in Counterterrorism

In response to kidnappings, executions and airstrikes alike, the political speeches delivered by the talking heads of state and government most often convey a carefully-contrived mix of warmhearted and cold-blooded differentiations between national unity and the enemy, most of which get absorbed by the 24/7 news cycle and subsequently reach billions around the world. “We must remain unwavering in our fight against terrorist organizations,” said US President Barack Obama during the international “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” held at the White House on February 19, 2015. Later in the speech he added, “We are all in the same boat. We have to help each other. In this work, you will have a strong partner in me and the United States of America.” But, it should be inquired, is this boat inscribed “MADE IN THE USA”? In an interview with VICE News published on March 17, Obama said yes, “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.”

Another case in point: the televised address of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi that quickly followed the Internet release of “A Message in Blood” on February 15. “The agony of the families of the victims is the agony of all Egypt,” said Sisi. And with the pre-dawn Egyptian military airstrikes against suspected IS targets in Libya imminent, later in the speech he added, “Egypt is maintaining the right to respond to these acts in the time and manner it deems appropriate to take revenge on those killers and criminals who are deprived of the simplest values of humanity.”

We’re all in the same boat, or the same fighter jet, all human beings landing somewhere on a gradation of agony. Death is a fact, and sometimes it’s bloodier than imagined, or, if a state of continuous war is any indication, apparently never bloody enough.