The Islamist jihadist war in Egypt increased in intensity throughout 2017. As many as 11 groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS Wilayat Sinai (“ISIS Sinai State,” or “ISIS Province,”) stepped up operations against both security and civilian targets, plunging the country deeper into violence. The government intensified its military and law enforcement operations in insurgent areas, which included raids on enemy hideouts. The following incidents from the first week of the New Year, coupled with major attacks from 2017, demonstrate Egypt’s threat situation heading into 2018.
The BBC reports that on 4 January, the Egyptian Army’s “Law Enforcement Forces” staged a joint operation with the Egyptian Air Force against two Islamist hideouts in central Sinai that killed two militants and arrested two others. Security forces also seized a motorcycle, a four-wheeled vehicle, and what has been described as “large amounts of narcotics.” This operation is but one of many that has been carried out with increased frequency since early 2015.
On the same day, reports the Egypt Independent, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s existing State of Emergency would be continued into the New Year, pending a yes vote by two thirds of the House of Representatives. The renewed security law is slated to begin on Friday, 13 January 2018. The legislation gives the government extra security powers in its fight against Islamist insurgents, such as longer than normal detention times for captured suspects.
On 2 January, the Egyptian government hanged four militants found guilty of a 2014 attack on military cadets in Kafr el-Sheikh. Just prior to this hanging, the government executed as many as 15 Islamist militants for an attack in 2013 that killed eight soldiers.
On 1 January, The Houstonian reports that Egyptian police had arrested more than 12 foreigners and a few locals involved in an Islamist plot against local and regional targets. The foreigners included Arabs from Tunisia and Syria, two Belgians, nine French citizens, and one American.
These smaller incidents are happening in the wake of scores of larger attacks on civilian targets throughout 2017. Some of these include:
- 9 April 2017, Palm Sunday, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked St. George’s Church in Tanta, and another bomber attacked St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. Combined casualty rates were 45 killed and 126 wounded.
- 26 May 2017, up to 10 ISIS gunmen staged a roadside ambush in Minya Governorate against a convoy of three vehicles carrying Coptic Christians to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor. The attack killed as many as 28 and wounded 22. The casualties included women and children. Some of the Coptics were executed when they refused to convert to Islam.
- 14 July 2017, Abdel-Rahman Shaaban, an ISIS follower, swam from a public beach to a resort beach in Hurghada and initiated a stabbing attack, screaming at “you infidels” as he did so. He killed three and wounded four. All the victims were women. Two of the dead were German, and one was Czech. The rest were German and Armenian. A similar attack was carried out in the same town at the Bella Vista Hotel and Resort on 12 January 2016.
- 24 November 2017, 40 ISIS gunmen raided the al-Rawda mosque in al-Rawda town, Sinai, during Friday prayers. The al-Rawda is a Sufi mosque, and before the attack, ISIS militants had warned Sufis not to cooperate with the government against local Islamist jihadists who are highly active in the Sinai area. ISIS, who are radical Sunnis, also detest Sufis, who they see as heretic. At any rate, in the course of the melee, the attackers exploded at least three vehicle bombs, which blocked escape routes of those fleeing. They then fired RPGs and assault rifles at the congregation. They also fired on first responders, including ambulances, from specially designated ambush points. The attack killed 311 and wounded 122.
- 29 December 2017, an ISIS gunman in Helwan attacked the St. Menas Coptic Orthodox Church, plus a nearby shop, killing 11 and wounding about the same number. Authorities killed the attacker before he could use the explosives he brought with him.
To add to Egypt’s fluid situation, on 4 January, ISIS’ Wilayat Sinai declared war on Hamas over its arrests of multiple Islamist jihadist operatives in Gaza over the past year. ISIS was also perturbed at Hamas not being able to stop President Donald Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. World News Israel said ISIS told its followers: “Never surrender to them [Hamas.] Use explosives, silenced pistols, and sticky bombs. Bomb their courts and their security locations, for these are the pillars of tyranny that prop up its throne.”
There are five takeaways here. First, Egypt’s Islamist jihadist war, which began in 2011 but massively picked up momentum with the ousting of Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government on 2 July 2013, is now in full swing. Since then, scores of different Islamist groups have attacked government and civilian targets in the Sinai area and in cities such as Alexandria and areas around Cairo.
Second, the insurgents’ tactics have been effective against both civilian and government targets. They have no qualms about using military style raids against civilian targets, for example. In fact, they prefer these methods because they result in exceedingly high casualty rates, as the Sufi mosque attack demonstrates.
Third, the civilian targeting in the above cases illustrates the following:
Sufis are attacked in order to:
- Deter them from providing the government with local counterinsurgency support
- “Purify” the Muslim community in Egypt
- Rally and inspire ISIS’s Islamist base
Coptic Christians are attacked in order to:
- “Purify” Egypt of “impure” religions
- Increase the propensity of a religious war pitting Christians against Muslims
- Rally ISIS’s Islamist base
The Hurghada resort was attacked in order to:
- Deter foreigners and their “impure” Western ways from visiting Egypt
- Severely injure Egypt’s tourist economy
- Spread terror amongst the international community and reinforce the bloody reputation of ISIS
All these attack methods and desired effects are standard operating procedure for the Islamist jihadist way of war all over the world. Moreover, in February 2017, ISIS called for attacks on Christians in Egypt, and they have made good on that call.
Fourth, if the government does not increase the effectiveness of its counterinsurgency operations in 2018, Egypt will become a more robust war zone. If left unchecked, ISIS and its allies will be in a position to add to the ongoing Islamist wars in North and West Africa, and they will certainly be positioned to open up a new front against Israel if they chose to do so. Declaring war on Hamas can be perceived as a first step toward this end.
Finally, if ISIS gains momentum in Egypt, it might very well try to establish some kind of caliphate base there in 2018.
Looking ahead, President Sisi has vowed to increase the harshness of government operations against the Islamists, which will draw the ire of international Islamist groups. Because ISIS and its cohorts are exceedingly vicious, however, the Egyptian government will respond in kind. This is part and parcel the way of war in the Middle East. On the other hand, if the government is able to:
- Wage a counter Islamist jihadist ideological war;
- Use intelligence-driven, focused kinetic operations;
- Protect the populations that are targeted by the jihadists – especially those providing intelligence and support to the government…
…then Egypt’s long term security will be better served.
Sources and further reading:
“Gunman Assaults Coptic Church In Egypt, Killing At Least 9,” The Kaplan Herald, 5 January 2018.
“ISIS in Sinai declares war on Hamas,” World Israel News, 4 January 2018.
“Egyptian police officer killed in bomb blast in Sinai,” Xinhua, 4 January 2018.
“Egypt army ‘kills’ militants in central Sinai,” BBC, 4 January 2018.
“Egypt: Egypt Hangs 4 Convicted Militants, Renews State of Emergency,” VOA News, 4 January 2018.
“American arrested in Egypt for allegedly plotting attacks,” The Houstonian, 3 January 2018.
“Sisi renews state of emergency starting Jan 13,” Egypt Independent, 3 January 2018.
“Egypt attack: Gunman targets Coptic Christians in church and shop,” BBC, 29 December 2017.
“Gunmen in Egypt mosque attack carried Islamic State flag, prosecutor says,” Reuters, 24 November 2017.
“Two tourists killed and four wounded in Egypt beach resort stabbing,” The Telegraph, 14 July.
“Egypt Coptic Christians killed in bus attack,” BBC, 26 May 2017.
“Egypt declares state of emergency after church bombings,” Al Jazeera, 9 April 2017.
“‘God gave orders to kill every infidel’ ISIS vows to massacre Christians in chilling video,” The Express, 21 February 2017.
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