Egypt mystified after ISIS claims responsibility for church attack
Cairo - Egypt’s security plans could turn upside down following an announcement by the Islamic State (ISIS) that it was responsible for a suicide bomb attack on a Cairo church, security experts said.
Twenty-four women and a child were killed and nearly 50 people injured when a bomb was set off inside Saint Mark’s Cathedral during morning services December 11th.
The Interior Ministry said the 22-year-old suspected bomber was a resident of the Nile Delta province of Monufia and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement of ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi.
Nonetheless, ISIS’s announcement indicates this is not another attack carried out by a Brotherhood group bent on avenging Morsi’s ouster and inflicting harm on Egypt’s Christian minority, which has backed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since he came to power in mid-2014, security experts said.
“This shows that the war with ISIS is taking on other forms and catching other elements of society in its middle,” said retired army colonel and terrorism expert Hatem Saber. “The announcement should cause a change of all security plans.”
In its statement, which was reported by SITE, a US-based group focused on jihadist news, ISIS said its member set off a bomb in the middle of the “crusaders” inside the Cairo cathedral.
“Let it be known to all disbelievers that our war on apostasy will go on and that the caliphate will continue to spill their blood and grill their bodies,” it added.
ISIS has been attacking army troops and police — killing scores — for more than three years in Egypt but most of those attacks were in the Sinai peninsula.
This time, however, ISIS hit where it hurts most: Egypt’s Christian minority.
Sisi has taken personal responsibility for protecting the Christians, who total about 12% of the Egyptian population of 94 million. In 2015 and 2016, he attended Christmas celebrations, the first Egyptian president to do so.
When he came to power, Sisi ordered the reconstruction of more than 70 churches burned down by the Brotherhood following Morsi’s ouster. He was infuriated when Muslim fanatics attacked a Christian home and stripped an elderly Christian woman naked in the central province of Minya last May.
The ISIS attack filled Egypt’s Christians with doubt about Sisi’s ability to protect them.
The government, however, said Egyptians will not be scared by such attacks.
“Our people will stand united in the face of these fascist attacks,” cabinet spokesman Ashraf Sultan said. “This cowardly act will only make us strong.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church, which is followed by the vast majority of Egypt’s Christians, tried to downplay ISIS’s threat and send assurances to its followers.
“This statement targets the whole of Egypt, not Christians only,” said church spokesman Polis Halim. “Groups like ISIS thrive on extremist ideologies.”
However, Christians who showed up outside the church hours after the attack seemed to need no other proof they are being targeted. Some of them chanted slogans against Sisi and others called for sacking the Interior minister.
Islamist analyst Ahmed Ban said, as it does in Iraq and Syria, ISIS wants to spread fear in Egypt.
“It wants to show that it is still alive and can hit even at Egypt’s capital,” Ban said. “The security apparatus needs to realise the enormity of the challenge it will face in the future.”
Egypt has beefed up security outside its 2,226 churches but countering ISIS, experts said, needs more than additional security measures.
“It needs an intellectual campaign to prevent this organisation from enlisting new recruits,” psychologist Mohamed al-Mahdi said. “You cannot fight a venomous organisation like this one with security alone.”
The bombing suspect had been arrested with a machine gun in March 2014. He was reported to be responsible for guarding Brotherhood demonstrators who staged numerous protests following Morsi’s ouster. He was released five months later.
He disappeared after that, his mother told a local newspaper. She said he called her from time to time but refused to tell her his whereabouts. Security experts say that he most probably had joined ISIS Sinai, where he was trained.
The timing of the church attack, economists said, could not have been worse for the Egyptian economy.
It was an ISIS-perpetrated bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai in November 2015 that ruined Egypt’s tourist season in 2016, which saw a drop of 51% compared with 2015 in the number of tourists visiting the country. Tourism accounts for almost 12% of Egypt’s gross domestic product.
“December is usually the beginning of the tourist season here,” said Alia al-Mahdi, an economics professor from Cairo University. “For the terrorists to strike now shows that they want to scare tourists away and destroy the tourist season.”