Church at­tack prompts fears of mil­i­tant es­ca­la­tion

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When a sui­cide bomber blew him­self up in a Cairo church a week ago, it marked a bloody es­ca­la­tion by Egypt’s ji­hadi mil­i­tants, rais­ing fears that an in­sur­gency which for years largely fo­cused on fight­ing in the Si­nai and killing po­lice­men may now turn to un­leash at­tacks on civil­ians in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal. A stepped up cam­paign by mil­i­tants linked to the Is­lamic State group would be a heavy blow to a coun­try try­ing to re­build a wrecked econ­omy and re­vive a vi­tal tourism in­dus­try. The prospect is al­ready spread­ing ter­ror among Egypt’s Chris­tians, who could be a main target.

In fact, the mil­i­tants may use Chris­tians in an at­tempt to en­flame sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions in Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity Egypt, fol­low­ing the strat­egy of the Is­lamic State group in Syria and Iraq. By tar­get­ing the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity, the group may be bet­ting it can sow chaos and un­der­mine the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Ab­delFat­tah El-Sissi while avoid­ing in­dis­crim­i­nate bomb­ings that kill fel­low Mus­lims and bring an even more fu­ri­ous pub­lic back­lash.

“They are fram­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in Egypt in the same way they do it in Syria and Iraq,” said Mokhtar Awad, re­search fel­low in the Pro­gram on Ex­trem­ism at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity. A storm of at­tacks on civil­ians would be a fright­en­ing change for Egypt. De­spite con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal un­rest since 2011, Cairo and Egypt’s other cities along the Nile Val­ley have largely been spared such mass may­hem, even as Iraq, Syria and neigh­bor­ing Libya have col­lapsed into chaos.

Tourism dev­as­tated

Ex­trem­ists linked to the Is­lamic State group have been wag­ing an in­sur­gency in the Si­nai Penin­sula in bru­tal fight­ing with sol­diers and se­cu­rity forces. In Cairo, they have car­ried out small-scale at­tacks on po­lice­men and sol­diers, as well as as­sas­si­na­tions of of­fi­cials, but rarely mass bomb­ings. In the past two years, se­cu­rity agen­cies suc­ceeded in break­ing up mul­ti­ple mil­i­tant cells out­side of Si­nai, aim­ing to keep the in­sur­gency bot­tled up in the penin­sula. North­ern Si­nai is a hot­bed of mil­i­tancy with plen­ti­ful weaponry. Last year, the mil­i­tants are be­lieved to have smug­gled a bomb on to a Rus­sian jet leav­ing the Si­nai re­sort of Sharm El-Sheikh, down­ing it in an at­tack that has dev­as­tated tourism there. But weapons and ex­plo­sives are eas­ily found across Egypt and can be smug­gled in through the porous west­ern border with Libya, a failed state where mili­tias hold sway, said author and Si­nai ex­pert Mo­han­nad Sabry. “It’s a sprawl­ing hub for ex­plo­sives like TNT, just take a look at all the im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices go­ing off in Si­nai and that the govern­ment claims it has seized - we are talking tons,” he said.

El-Sissi has fash­ioned him­self as the leader of the fight against Is­lamic mil­i­tancy in the re­gion, por­tray­ing his crack­down on Egypt’s pre­vi­ously rul­ing Mus­lim Brother­hood as part of that wider bat­tle. The new at­tack could be a move by mil­i­tants to shake con­fi­dence in him at a sen­si­tive time, af­ter in­tro­duc­ing painful eco­nomic re­forms.

Last Sun­day’s sui­cide bomber hit a church linked to the main cathe­dral of Egypt’s Cop­tic Chris­tian Church, rip­ping through a crowd of mainly women wor­ship­pers, killing at least 26 and wound­ing dozens more. It was the dead­li­est such at­tack on Chris­tians in years, re­call­ing a 2011 sui­cide bomb­ing at an Alexan­dria church that killed more than 20. The govern­ment said Sun­day’s bomber was a former sup­porter of the Brother­hood who joined mil­i­tants. Later, the Is­lamic State group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Egyp­tian of­fi­cials, how­ever, have kept their fo­cus on the Brother­hood, the Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal move­ment whose leader, Mo­hamed Morsi, was ousted from the pres­i­dency by the mil­i­tary in 2013. On Mon­day, the In­te­rior Min­istry said ex­iled Brother­hood lead­ers pro­vided “fi­nan­cial and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port” for the church bomb­ing.

Uptick in at­tacks

Spokes­men for the In­te­rior Min­istry, re­spon­si­ble for po­lice, as well as the For­eign Min­istry, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on whether they be­lieved the bomb­ing sig­naled the start of a wider cam­paign. But a re­cent uptick in at­tacks has shown how vi­o­lence has evolved the past two years. New groups such as one known as Hasm have emerged, launch­ing high-level as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts and at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces in main­land Egypt, in­clud­ing one that killed six po­lice­men out­side Cairo last week.

—AP

CAIRO: A Cop­tic cler­gy­man ex­am­ines the dam­ages at the scene in­side the St. Mark Cathe­dral in cen­tral Cairo, fol­low­ing a bomb­ing, Sun­day, Dec. 11, 2016.

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