The coordinated Palm Sunday church bombings targeting Coptic Christians that killed nearly 50 people in Tanta and Alexandria and were claimed by the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai, have opened at least two pressing questions.
First, is Egypt’s security apparatus able to protect its people, churches and establishments against militant attacks: the purported reason the government pointed toward to justify Tuesday’s decision to introduce a nationwide state of emergency? Second, what do the attacks say about the Islamic State’s geographical and operational expansion in Egypt?
At 10 am on Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated the explosive vest he was wearing. The resulting blast ripped through the front row of pews in Tanta’s St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, killing nearly 30 churchgoers and wounding nearly 80 others. At noon, a second suicide bombing attack occurred outside the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, killing another 17 people, including several police personnel, and wounding more than 30 others. Coptic Pope Tawadros II had been presiding over the Palm Sunday service and had left St. Mark only minutes before the blast.
The coordinated suicide bombings took place after telling and foreboding circumstances. In Tanta, clergymen at St. George’s Church had alerted security forces on March 29 to the presence of a suspicious-looking object found under a front row pew.
Is Egypt’s security apparatus able to protect its people, churches and establishments against militant attacks?
Upon their arrival, security forces inspected the object and determined it to be an improvised explosive device.
Two days later, on March 31, Tanta was the site of a bombing that targeted a police training camp. A low-ranking police officer was killed in the blast, while 15 others, including police personnel and passersby, were injured.
In Alexandria, there was a calm before the storm.
Surveillance videos reveal that the suicide bomber walked to the main gate of St. Mark Church, where the church’s security personnel stopped him from entering and redirected him to another gate managed by police. At the second gate, he was required to walk through a metal detector, which appears to have beeped, at which point, he stepped backwards and detonated the explosive vest he was wearing, killing and injuring police personnel and civilians.
On Sunday morning, Egyptian newspapers that were published before the church bombings had reported on the Interior Ministry’s thorough security measures planned for Palm Sunday and the Coptic Holy Week, in anticipation of potential terrorist operations.
Read our coverage of Parliament’s decision to approve an amendment to the Emergency law, following the Palm Sunday bombings which will permit indefinite detentions
The security measures included police surveillance and patrols focused on side streets in the vicinity of churches, along with warnings to Copts against congregating outside churches following religious services and parking cars outside or near churches. The Interior Ministry also called on people to immediately alert security forces of the presence of any suspicious-looking objects and cautioned against carrying or igniting fireworks.
Shortly after the Palm Sunday bombings, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the National Defense Council, addressing the nation later the same evening of the decisions to emerge from the gathering. However, the president did respond to criticism of security lapses. Rather, he announced his intention to introduce a three-month-long national state of emergency.
The address was different from that which Sisi delivered on December 11, just a few hours after the deadly bombing of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, which killed 29 church goes and injured 47. “Nobody better say that there was a security shortcoming,” Sisi said at the time.
On Sunday, however, the president deployed Egypt’s Armed Forces across the country, with orders to secure churches and vital state establishments, in what may point to his distrust in the Ministry of Interior and his doubts regarding the ability of police forces to safeguard churches or state buildings.
Sisi announced that he would institute a state of emergency after the Palm Sunday bombings. What can and can’t he do under the Emergency Law?
Egypt’s Interior Ministry reacted to the Palm Sunday church bombings by dismissing Major General Hossam al-Deen Khalifa, the Gharbiya Governorate chief of security, where Tanta is located, and appointing Major General Tareq Hassouna, the Cairo Governorate’s deputy chief of security, as his replacement. The Ministry of Interior also dismissed a number of other police officials in Gharbiya.
“While this may have been a failure in Cairo, where the security services rely on a large and complex network of informants, this network cannot keep up with the pace of recruitment and polarization in the Nile Delta, especially if we are talking about those who received advanced training,” says Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism.
Awad emphasizes that this is not the first terror operation to be carried out by the Province of Sinai in the Nile valley. The militant group, which was initially known as Asnar Beit al-Maqdes but later adopted the name Welayet Sinai (Province of Sinai) and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, carried out one of its largest operation in the Nile Delta region in 2013, when it executed a suicide bombing of the Daqahlia security directorate headquerters.
While the Nile Delta was largely insulated from the violence of religious extremists in the 1980s and 1990s, in 2011, armed fundamentalist groups began establishing cells and weapons caches in several areas, particularly in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiya.
Egypt’s church bombings must be viewed in the context of territorial losses that the Islamic State has been incurring in Syria and Iraq
“Starting from 2013, these areas began to witness a lot of armed operations, in a sporadic and irregular manner, by groups believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Awad says, explaining that it was at this point that the Islamic State began establishing its own sleeper cells in the Nile Delta.
Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil, a researcher of political Islam, says that the string of church bombings that have hit Egypt in the past few months must be viewed in the context of the territorial losses that the Islamic State has been incurring in Syria and Iraq.
According to Qandil, the Islamic State is striving to save and promote itself through church bombings in Egypt. “The choice of the locations of these operations and the coordination involved serves to promote sectarian strife in Egypt among Copts and Muslims. This acts to establish a suitable environment in which the organization may operate and facilitates its outreach to local extremists, so that they may carry out more of these operations.”
There is a further connection between the attacks in Egypt and the state of the Islamic State’s operations in the rest of the region: namely the return of fighters from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper drew a connection between one of the bombers named in the Islamic State statement and a man belonging to the militant group of followers of Salafi hardliner Sheikh Hazem Salah Abou Ismail. The man, named Abou Baraa al-Masry, was allegedly responsible for arranging travel for Egyptians to join the Islamic State’s ranks in Syria. He was among the defendants listed in a case against the Islamic State in Egyptian courts.
The extent of the Islamic State’s expansion in mainland Egypt through its network of collaborations with local groups remains to be seen.
Translated by Heba Afify and Jano Charbel