ISIS returnees constitute new threat for Egypt

December 18, 2016
Egyptian woman holding candle at vigil in downtown Cairo

Cairo - The Islamic State (ISIS) has imposed a new alarming reality and challenge on authorities in Egypt fol­lowing the deadly bomb­ing of a church in Cairo.
By claiming responsibility for the December 11th bombing of Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Church and home to the office of its spir­itual leader, Pope Tawadros II, ISIS is waging its war against Egypt di­rectly, not through its local branch, known as Sinai Province.
“This is clear from the statement issued by ISIS following the church bombing,” said Kamal Habib, an expert on Islamist groups. “It is the mother organisation that is talking this time, not its Egyptian branch.”
The church bombing left 24 women and a child dead and close to 50 peo­ple injured. It was the first time ISIS directly targeted the Christian mi­nority inside Egypt, dealing a strong blow to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who had taken personal responsibil­ity for protecting them.
The challenge for Egypt, terror­ism experts said, will be to control its internal security situation with the return of hundreds — possibly thousands — of Egyptians fighting within the ranks of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya as the radical organisation loses ground in those countries.
A large number of Egyptians have travelled to Turkey and then in Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, according to Egyptian security agencies. Some Egyptians left for Libya during and after Islamist president Muhammad Morsi ruled Egypt in 2012-13.
“Their return will be catastrophic to our country,” Habib said. “They can stage painful attacks every­where in Egypt.”
Hardened by years of fighting, re­turning militants will not be easy for Egyptian security agencies to stop, other experts said.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry refused to answer questions on the measures it is taking to track down returning militants but, according to media reports, the ministry is re­viewing the files of Egyptians who returned from Turkey, Jordan, Leba­non and Iraq in recent months.
Some militants are reported to have sneaked into Egypt from Libya. Foreign militants are said to have masqueraded as tourists, entered Egypt and then joined Sinai Prov­ince. The Interior Ministry did not confirm such reports.
Fouad Allam, a former senior of­ficial with Egypt’s State Security, the country’s internal intelligence agency, said security agencies have received information about the re­turn of militants from Syria and Iraq.
“Tighter measures have been taken at entry points to track them down and arrest them,” Allam said. “There is information already that ISIS will send some elements to car­ry out attacks here.”