Egypt News: Additional Mass Attacks against Copts Deepen Fears of Islamic State

Thursday Apr. 13, 2017

Egypt News: Additional Mass Attacks against Copts Deepen Fears of Islamic State

Photo by: ‚ÄčAlison Payne

Latest Egypt News post Coptic Cathedral Bombings

On the heels of an attack against a Coptic cathedral in December that killed dozens, the April 9 bombings of Coptic Christian churches in Tanta and Alexandria confirmed that the Islamic State (IS) has shifted its targeting parameters, marking a break from a longstanding, primary focus on security forces and symbols of the regime. The attacks prompted a strong response by the state; President Abdel Fatah El Sisi forwarded a declaration of a three-month state of emergency to Parliament, which was approved unanimously on April 11. While opportunistic targeting of Coptic Christians and their places of worship will likely continue, a dramatic deterioration in the overall security environment due to IS militancy is unlikely, as current threats will likely be limited to specific targets and their immediate surroundings.

Key Judgments

  • The attacks occurred in response to earlier calls by the local IS affiliate to target Coptic Christians in Egypt.
  • There is, thus far, no indication that militants intend to target civilians indiscriminately; IS added Copts to the targeting list because of their status as non-Muslims, but also because IS militants perceive them as allies of the current government and beneficiaries of Cairo's policies.
  • The newly issued state of emergency and increased targeting of Copts are unlikely to have a significant impact on business operations in Egypt.

Background

IS issued a claim of responsibility for two separate bombings targeting Coptic Christian churches in Tanta and Alexandria on April 9 just hours after the incidents occurred. The initial bombing targeted St. George Church in Tanta at approximately 1000. Approximately three hours later, a second bombing occurred at St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria. Health ministry officials declared a combined casualty count of 45 dead and more than 100 injured. Perpetrators in both cases were suicide bombers. The attack took place as worshipers observed Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.

Islamic State Strategy

The recent bombings confirm previous indications that IS intends to target Coptic Christians as part of its anti-government campaign. In a propaganda video released by IS shortly after a Dec. 11 bombing of St. Peter's Church in Cairo, the group encouraged more attacks on Coptic Christians, not solely for their religious beliefs, but also because the group views Copts as being both allies and beneficiaries of the regime through their influence in the economy, media, and judiciary. More specifically, IS alleged that Copts "are part of the 'wheels of the regime.'" This statement adds fuel to a common Islamist narrative that Christians played a role in the ousting of former Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Copts, on the other hand, have long lamented government policies that place restrictions on building churches, and claim that the government consistently fails to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence. The IS video attempts to reverse this narrative and serves to depict Copts as permissible targets, despite their civilian status.

IS is likely cognizant that major attacks in urban centers would more easily and quickly facilitate their anti-state objectives than targeting Coptic Christians in more rural areas where they reside in higher concentrations, such as Minya or Sohag. Mass-casualty incidents in major cities have already proved to garner more attention than attacks in the group's previously unsafe strongholds in North Sinai; consequently, in an alert issued in January, iJET identified St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria as a location that could be potentially affected by the increase in sectarian violence. Targeting Coptic Christians in traditionally safer areas of Egypt also stokes wider criticism of the government for its perceived failure to protect citizens.

State of Emergency

The implementation of a state of emergency was likely a symbolic measure to stave off criticism of the government's abilities to provide security, or its perceived discrimination of Coptic minorities. In fact, the powers granted by the implementation of a state of emergency, including the ability to detain and arrest individuals suspected of militancy, are already widely practiced. Mass arrests, forced disappearances, and military trials of civilians have remained features of the Egyptian security apparatus since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the state of emergency declared at that time was not lifted until 2012. A state of emergency has since been periodically implemented in periods of crisis or unrest; a state of emergency was previously implemented under Sisi's presidency in 2013 following the violence that occurred during large demonstrations against the ouster of Morsi.

Impact on Business Operations

The implementation of the state of emergency is unlikely to impact business operations significantly in Egypt. In its current form, the state of emergency is unlikely to produce more than localized traffic disruptions that may arise from the introduction of security checkpoints. The emergency law will also enhance the presence of security officials near potential attack targets and other sensitive sites. Security forces have previously imposed a curfew under a state of emergency; however, no such restrictions have yet been announced.

Similarly, the recent increase in attacks on Coptic Christians will likely not have considerable impact on business operations. There are no indications that IS intends to target civilians indiscriminately, as militants risk undermining their potential support base, especially if they kill fellow Sunni Muslims. All three recent bombings in mainland Egypt have maintained the trend of minimizing collateral damage by focusing attacks in areas where Copts congregate. However, businesses operating in areas near potential Coptic targets could be impacted by the collateral effects of such targeting, including delays in access to assets due to heightened security measures, or spillover violence from potential attacks.

Conclusion

Coptic Christians and their places of worship will continue to be attractive targets, as the latest attacks confirm. Egyptian authorities have stepped up security in the wake of the incidents, but strong measures, beyond an increased security presence around Coptic churches, have long been in place and are unlikely to prove disruptive to business operations.

For more intelligence analysis and insights, follow iJET on Twitter where we share regular updates on risk management issues impacting global organizations and the security of their people and operations.

Alison Payne serves as an intelligence analyst on the Middle East and North Africa Team at iJET International. She holds a Masters of Arts in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo, where she also studied Arabic through the Arabic Language Institute's intensive program. In addition, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies with a concentration in the Middle East from Washington College.

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