The so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s leader in Egypt has warned Muslims to stay away from Christian gatherings as well as government, military and police facilities, suggesting that the militant group will keep up attacks on what he referred to as “legitimate targets.”
In an interview published last week in IS’ Al Naba weekly newspaper published on Telegram, the leader, who was not named, stated “we are warning you to stay away from Christian gathering, as well as the gatherings of the army and the police, and the areas that have political government facilities.”
Islamic militants have increasingly targeted religious minorities, a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s, who has promised to protect them from extremism. Last month, two IS suicide bombers killed at least 45 people at churches in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta, one of the bloodiest attacks the country has experienced in years. IS has also been turning its sights on targets outside its base in the Sinai and has recently been putting more pressure on the Egyptian government and has presented additional challenges for security services.
Twin bombings targeting churches in Egypt earlier this month have suggested that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group are lashing out, as they find themselves coming under increasing pressure in their strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
IS’ Egyptian affiliate claimed responsibility for the 9 April attacks in the Nile Delta cities of Tanta and Alexandria, with the group being centred in the Sinai Peninsula, where it has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers. It has however been unable to seize population centres there, unlike its early gains in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, in recent months, it has lost top militants to Egyptian military strikes.
While the militant group has attacked Egyptian Coptic Christians before, Since December 2016, it has increased their campaign against the minority group. That month, a Cairo church bombing killed 29 people. In Sinai, IS militants killed seven Copts in January and February, forcing dozens of Christian families to flee the peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip. That December church bombing however marked a shift in IS tactics, as it was not until that incident when IS began a systematic campaign to target Coptic Christians in the North African country. In a video released in February 2017, IS attacked Christians as “polytheists” and promised that there would be further attacks.
The shift in tactics also comes at a time when it has been under growing pressure in Iraq and Syria, with the group likely carrying out deadly attacks elsewhere in a bid to boost morale amongst its followers and show its relevance and continued capability to launch attacks. In Iraq and neighbouring Syria, where the group proclaimed its “caliphate” in 2014 as it swept across the northern region of Iraq, IS has faced consecutive defeats in the last year and is now on the verge of losing control of Iraq’s second city Mosul.
The ongoing attacks on Coptic Christians hae prompted President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare a three-month state of emergency in Egypt.
On 9 December, six policemen were killed and three injured in an explosion in the Giza district of Cairo, near the ancient pyramids. The attack appears to have specifically targeted police officers. It was the deadliest incident in Cairo since May, when Islamic State gunmen attacked a bus carrying plainclothes officers, killing eight.
Anonymous sources indicate that two bombs were placed near a mobile checkpoint in Al Haram street. The street leads to the Pyramids and is often used by tour buses. The area has been cordoned off as police search for more explosives.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the incident, however the acts are consistent with a relatively unknown militant group operating in Cairo called the Hassam (“Decisiveness”) Movement. In September, Haasam Movement claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Egypt’s deputy state prosecutor.
The bombing comes days after the Interior Ministry announced the killing of three members of the Hassam Movement in southern Egypt, and weeks after they announced breaking up one of the group’s cells. Egyptian security sources say the Hassam Movement is affiliated the Muslim Brotherhood. However since 2013, the Egyptian government has been prone to attributing many militant actions to the Brotherhood, which is now banned and listed as a terrorist organisation in Egypt.
The incident occurs as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi initiates austerity measures address a growing financial crisis. The government floated the Egyptian pound in November and cut fuel subsidies, raising the price of many necessities out of the reach of many struggling Egyptians.
While the attack does not appear to have targeted civilians or foreigners, visitors to the region are urged to remain vigilant, particularly when visiting sites popular for tourists.
A second bombing occurred later on Friday near Egypt’s Kafr el Sheikh. The bomb targeted police vehicles in the road, injuring three policemen and killing a motorist in the vicinity of the explosion.
In a statement on their website, the relatively unknown Cairo-based militant group, Hassam Movement, has claimed responsibility for the attack Giza attacks earlier in the day. It is likely they are also responsible for the second bombing.
The Egyptian army has reported that Egypt and France began Sunday joint manoeuvres in the Mediterranean in which French Rafale warplanes, purchased by Cairo last year, are taking part.
According to the Egyptian army, the “Ramses 2016” military and naval exercise is being held off the coast of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and are expected to last for several days. Paris announced the manoeuvres on Tuesday, stating that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is being used to launch airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, would also take part. At the time, the French Defense Ministry indicated that the drill is aimed at “sharing our expertise with the Egyptian military…one of our main Middle East partners.” Meanwhile the Egyptian army has disclosed that a French multi-mission frigate, which was purchased by Cairo last year, would also take part in the drill along with Rafale combat jets and F-16 warplanes.
In 2015, Cairo signed a multi-billion euro deal in order to purchase from France 24 Rafale fighters, of which six have already been delivered. On 19 December 2015, the Charles de Gaulle carrier took command in the Gulf of the naval continent operating as part of the international coalition fighting IS.
The French-Egyptian manoeuvres are taking place amidst Western concerns over the growing influence of IS in Libya, which borders Egypt.
On Monday, 14 December, Egyptian officials reported that so far, they have found no evidence of terrorism or other illegal action linked to the 31 October crash of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai, which killed all 224 people on board. The plane came down en route to Russia from the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
While Russian and Western governments have previously reported that the Airbus A321, which was operated by Metrojet, was likely brought down by a bomb, with a group linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group claiming responsibility and stating that it had managed to smuggle an explosive on board, Egypt’s civil aviation ministry has indicated that it has completed a preliminary report on the crash, adding that it had so far found no evidence of a criminal act. In a statement, the ministry disclosed that “the technical investigative committee has so far not found anything indicating any illegal intervention or terrorist action.” Russia had previously reported that a bomb brought down the Metrojet Airbus, after finding what it said were “traces of foreign explosives” on the debris. It has vowed to “find and punish” the perpetrators.”
In response to Monday’s findings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov re-iterated that “our experts concluded this was a terrorist attack.”
What is known is that the plane crash has affected Egypt’s tourism industry, which is a cornerstone of the economy. According to the country’s tourism minister, tourism revenues for 2015 will be at least 10% below last year’s. The plane took off from Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort that is popular with British and Russian holidaymakers. Furthermore, the incident has raised serious questions about airport security, which has prompted both Britain and Russia to suspend flights into Sharm el-Sheikh. Egypt is now also facing a two-year Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, which has killed hundreds of soldiers and police. Shortly after the 31 October plane crash, IS stated that the bombing was in response to Russian airstrikes in Syria. Last month, IS’ magazine published a photo of what it claimed was the improvised bomb that brought down the airliner. The picture in Dabiqu showed a Schweppes Gold soda can and what appears to be a detonator and a switch.