Two days after the explosion in the St. Peter and St. Paul Church on December 11, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack which killed 24 people.
The announcement raised questions about the authenticity of the claim and, more importantly, the extent to which the Islamic State is shifting operations beyond its traditional territory of combat in Sinai, Egypt, and expanding the scope of its targets to include civilians.
Is the statement authentic?
Ahmed Ban, a researcher specializing in Islamist affairs and movements, disagrees with those who doubt the authenticity of the statement. He says: “Some might think that the statement has been fabricated or that it was produced to alleviate the responsibility from a certain entity. I am not inclined to believe this. The statement has been posted on the same forums we usually consider a source for the Islamic State’s statements, such as the Amaq agency. If the statement were false, we would have found a contradiction quickly.”
Typically the Islamic State’s statements claiming responsibility for attacks in Egypt carry the signature of the Province of Sinai, the transnational militant group’s local chapter. The Province of Sinai is the evolution of the militant Ansar Beit al-Maqdes group, who has operated in Sinai since 2011 and which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014. However, in the recent statement on the church attack this signature was missing, leading some to doubt its legitimacy. But Ban believes this omission may just be an oversight, and is not grounds enough to the question the authenticity of the statement.
I don’t think that the Islamic State will claim an operation it did not carry out. This would diminish their media influence particularly when it comes to an operation of this size
There have been instances of the Islamic State claiming attacks without referencing the Province of Sinai, the first of which was the bombing of the Italian consulate on June 11, 2015. Nine other attacks took place, similarly attributed only to IS, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) which documents terrorist acts on a quarterly basis in Egypt.
Aly al-Raggal, a political sociology researcher specializing in security studies, thinks that the omission may even be intentional, a byproduct of splits within the organization. He says: “This could stem from an internal dispute that’s become regionally evident since the beginning of the Battle for Mosul. For example, it could be that a group from the Province of Sinai split and carried out this operation.”
In early October the Iraqi military announced a battle to liberate the city of Mosul from Islamic State fighters. At the same time, information started emerging about splits within the Islamic State’s leadership, mainly due to declining control over a number of areas.
Another source of uncertainty regarding the statement’s authenticity has stemmed from its late issuance. The attack took place on December 11, yet the statement came two days later.
Raggal argues that this does not mean it lacks credibility. He says, “The Islamic State chooses the times of its announcements according to mechanisms related to politics and propaganda. In many previous operations, they have waited days before claiming the attacks.”
He concludes: “I don’t think that the Islamic State will claim an operation it did not carry out. This would diminish their media influence particularly when it comes to an operation of this size, and it has had credibility when claiming previous major operations.”
Is the operation indicative of a geographic expansion in Islamic State operations?
If the Islamic State is indeed responsible for carrying out the attack on the church, then it managed to do so at the site of the Coptic Cathedral in the heart of Cairo, in broad daylight.
Throughout the past two years the Islamic State has carried out several attacks outside of North Sinai, some of which were in the heart of Cairo. They mostly included security targets, such as the bombing of the National Security building in Shubra al-Khaima on August 21, 2015, the targeting of a checkpoint in Mostorod on March 13, 2015, the murder of two officers from the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and the targeting of a checkpoint near Saqqara on November 28, 2015. There was also a bomb blast claimed by IS at administrative offices affiliated with the Foreign Ministry on September 20, 2015, in addition to the bombing of the Italian consulate on June 11, 2015, among other operations.
The operation does not necessarily mean that the Islamic State has gained new cells outside of Sinai. Previous operations claimed by the organization in Cairo, such as the bombing of the Italian consulate, indicate that it has an organizational hand here
According to TIMEP, the number of terrorist attacks outside of Sinai have decreased in 2016 to a total 109 of operations, compared with 155 in the last half of 2015.
However, the church bombing begs the question, what is the extent of the Islamic State’s operational expansion outside of Sinai.
Raggal says “the operation does not necessarily mean that the Islamic State has gained new cells outside of Sinai. Previous operations claimed by the organization in Cairo, such as the bombing of the Italian consulate, indicate that it has an organizational hand here. They could be organizational cells, or at the very least they have the capacity to reach these areas.”
He adds: “If the movement has organizational cells that are able to work on a wide scale outside of Sinai, it wouldn’t have been delayed till now.” Raggal suggests that it is important to note whether operations spread over a wider geographical scope in Egypt signifies a different type of organizing.
According to Ban, there have been noticeable attacks on several terrorist cells in the Delta region. He says: “The remains of these cells will need security, funds, armament and protection. They will look for bigger organizations from within which they can operate. If this takes place, we will be facing a series of operations that could probably be bigger and more dangerous than the last.”
Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow on extremism at George Washington University has a different view. “Since 2011, a few sleeper cells were founded in the Delta. They were activated in the months following June 30, 2013. In 2014, significant security strikes were made against the heads of these cells in Greater Cairo and Upper Egypt, primarily the Arab Sharkas cell. Following these strikes, and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes’ pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, some of the remaining cells accepted affiliation with the organization while others rejected it.”
As such, he explains, the existence of these cells in these areas is not new, “the Islamic State did not found new cells in the Delta; however, it did incorporate old existing cells in its fold. I believe that these cells receive their assignments directly from Raqqa (the alleged capital of IS) and not from Sinai.”
Is the operation indicative of a qualitative shift in Islamic State operations in Egypt?
If their claims of responsibility are authentic, the church bombing marks the first operation the Islamic State has conducted in Egypt which primarily targets civilians, killing a significant number at a major religious site.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi caused a stir when he announced that the church bombing was the work of a young man wearing an explosive belt who detonated himself inside the church. The veracity of this account was questioned, however, since the announcement was made so shortly after the bombing. Many expressed doubts that the body could have been identified in that time frame. The Islamic State’s statement also claims the attack was a suicide bombing. They claim the bomber’s name, potentially a nom de guerre, was Abou Abdallah al-Masry however according to the Egyptian authorities his name was Mahmoud Shafiq Mostafa. Mostafa has a previous history of detention and prosecution in a case related to protesting.
Most attacks attributed to Province of Sinai and the Islamic State are IED types, and don’t involve suicide bombings. Moreover, according to TIMEP, the Province of Sinai claimed 48 attacks per month in the first half of 2016, compared to 26 in the last six months of 2015. The majority of the attacks targeted security forces, however the number of civilians killed increased from 15 at the end of 2015 to 23 in 2016.
Ban likens the organizational behavior of the Islamic State to its experience outside of Egypt. “In Iraq and Syria for example, the organization started with operations that focused on security and military personnel, then it started to target civilians in crowded places on occasions, holidays or in places of worship. In my opinion, this shift took place in Egypt several months ago when the Province of Sinai posted a video showing their fighters training to carry arms in cities.”
He says: “The operation exploited the weak security, the gap between the administrative security of the church and the security provided by the Interior Ministry, and it was sufficient to give momentum to the Islamic State’s operations. I am afraid we are now dealing with the phase of monstrous management with the organization.”
The term monstrous management comes from one of the books that formed the basic literature of Al-Qaeda, and is one of the phases the Islamic State includes in its operations. In this phase, the focus is on suicide operations, striking with the aim of bringing down a large number of victims.
For this reason, Raggal believes that the Islamic State’s claim over the church bombing is catastrophic from all angles. He states that “in previous terrorist operations, whether carried out by a group like Ajnad Misr (a splinter of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes) or Ansar Beit al-Maqdes before and after it allied with IS, the terrorists were careful to show that they do not target civilians.”
He points out that the bombing of the Cairo security directorate and the Italian Consulate in Cairo both took place in the early hours of the morning. “In both instances it would have been a massacre if the bombing had taken place at midday. There was an effort to adhere to that image in which they avoid targeting civilians.”
However, he adds “I am afraid that we have now reached the phase where the armed groups have decided that civilian causalities are necessary losses and Muslim victims may be necessary collateral.”
Awad disagrees. He doesn’t think that the Islamic State has reached the stage of organizing large-scale operations with large targets across Egypt, and says: “I still don’t think that Egypt is facing a kind of terrorism that is comparable to that widespread elsewhere in the region. We do not see many attempted attacks in Upper Egypt and the Delta, and we cannot say with certainty that there is an inclination towards this. This operation could be the last and, the main reason being the difficulty of reaching targets outside of Sinai.”
Translated by Lina Attalah