In Egypt, public joins fight against terrorism
Cairo - As Egypt confronts an evolving terrorist threat, many find positive news in reports that members of the public interceded during an attack on a church in the southern Cairo district of Helwan.
Eleven people, including a policeman, were killed December 29 when a gunman attacked the Mar Mina Church. The toll was perhaps limited because the church was barricaded and local citizens confronted the attacker.
Salah al-Mougi, who witnessed the attack, said: “I wanted to do something but I couldn’t because he was armed.”
After the attacker found that he could neither enter the church nor leave the area on the motorbike that he arrived on because residents had hidden it, he stalked the area on foot, looking for more victims.
Dozens of people pursued him, hiding behind vehicles to avoid being shot but waiting for the right moment to act. After a policeman shot the attacker in the leg, Mougi, 50, said he darted from his hiding place to confront and disarm the assailant.
Many people joined Mougi, punching and kicking the attacker into submission. “I had to intervene or this man would have kept shooting until all bullets in the high-capacity magazine came to an end,” Mougi said.
The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the Helwan attack. The gunman is facing charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism. Egyptian authorities said they have tied him to other recent attacks.
Some have questioned why it took so long — estimates of 10-20 minutes — for police to respond to the attack. Others chose to focus on the heroic intervention by citizens.
Many terrorist organisations have explicitly sought to avoid targeting everyday Egyptians because such attacks are through to hurt future recruitment but that would also mobilise the public to inform against them, analysts said.
“This was clear in the discourse of all terrorist groups active in our country,” said Kamal Habib, an expert on Islamist jihadism and a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. “These groups were always keen to show that they were at war only with the army and police.”
This strategy proved successful in parts of Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula where Bedouin tribes have been accused of offering militants sanctuary and perhaps actively cooperating with them.
Egyptian authorities have repeatedly appealed to the public for information about militants. The National Security Agency, the main domestic security agency in Egypt, has run ads on television calling for greater cooperation from the public.
However, most of the appeals were ignored, experts said, because most of the public did not feel directly threatened.
“A change is, however, happening now that the terrorists are targeting everybody, not only security men or the Christians,” said Sameh Eid, an expert on militant groups and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Everybody here [in Egypt] feels targeted, which is why everybody is starting to take the battle against terrorism personally.”
An attack by ISIS on al-Rawdah Mosque near the North Sinai City of El Arish in November could prove to be a major turning point in Egypt’s war on terrorism, analysts said. The attack, which left 310 people, including more than 20 children, dead was the worst terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history and the first time that a mosque in the country has been targeted.
ISIS said the attack was specifically against Sufis, members of a mystical branch of Islam considered heretical by ISIS and other extremists. However, few Egyptians seem convinced. What is clear is that after the mosque attack, the war on terrorism in Egypt entered a new stage.
“This is why everybody is ready to act and I am sure public involvement will herald the quick end of terrorism,” said Mamdouh al- Kidwani, a retired police general. “Terrorism thrives only where there is public support or sympathy that gives the terrorists the incubators they need.”
The fight against terrorism, Eid warned, is the job of well-trained security personnel, not the public.
“This fight cannot be allowed to deteriorate into a free-for-all,” he said. “Ordinary people can be useful in providing law-enforcement agencies with information but to use them in fighting the terrorists can be very risky.”