While the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Friday attack on a bus caravan making its way to the St. Samuel Coptic Orthodox Monastery, information has been slow to trickle in about the details behind the operation that left seven Coptic Christians dead and 20 more injured.
Amid a series of calls for retribution, capped by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s opening remarks at the World Youth Forum on November 3, the Interior Ministry announced on Sunday that security forces had killed 19 individuals, describing them as “members of the terrorist cell that carried out the Minya attack.” The details were sparse, however.
In light of this opacity, the public has been left to grasp at small details to try to piece together what led to Friday’s violence. And while there has been accounts that foist criticism on the state’s provision of security to Coptic Christians as “sterile and just for show,” some of the details of Friday’s resurgence of militant violence in Upper Egypt coupled with what Libyan military sources have told Mada Masr also open onto larger questions of the existence and relationship between militant groups, both inside and outside Egypt.
The first indication that something was different about Friday’s attack came from the Islamic State’s publishing arm, the Amaq News Agency. In the second of two statements issued on Friday following the attack, the militant group presented that attack as a way to “avenge our chaste sisters.” While vague, the language contained a possible hint to the Muslim Brotherhood activists detained in dawn raids in Cairo on Thursday.
The Muslim Brotherhood was not the only other group that came up in talks surrounding the attack. In comments to Mada Masr, Libyan military sources noted that the attack comes as there is still discussion around the intel gathered during interrogation of Hesham Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special operations officer who ascended to the upper ranks of several prominent militant groups and carried out some of the most deadly attacks on Egyptian security in recent years.
Ashmawy’s possible association with the attack may seem somewhat strange, because of his Al-Qaeda affiliation and the Islamic State’s statement claiming responsibility. The groups’ history of rivalry has led to clashes between the two groups in Libya. Moreover, Al-Qaeda does not deliberately target Christian civilians in Egypt, and the group’s activities are mainly limited to antagonizing the state’s security, military and judicial apparatus.
Nonetheless, sources have suggested to Mada Masr that Ashmawy had confessed plans by militant groups with ties to both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to carry out violent attacks in Egypt.
A Libyan military source told Mada Masr that among the confessions Ashmawy made during his interrogations following his arrest last month, he confirmed that several groups, some of which he personally trained, had moved to Egypt. He also confirmed that sleeper cells were preparing to carry out attacks in Egypt, which he anticipated would take place at the end of October.
These statements add to the confusion surrounding the attack, since the militant groups have fought one another over the past few years, with Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, including Ashmawy’s, on one side, and those that are tied to the Islamic State on the other.
However, due to the Libyan National Army’s move to take the city of Derna, there was a change in the rivals’ relationship, an account buoyed by the fact that Ashmawy’s confessions revealed the whereabouts of 50 wounded Islamic State militants, who have been hiding in one of the neighborhoods of Derna, a source in the Libyan Center for Judicial Experience previously told Mada Masr.
“With the emergence of the Islamic State in Libya in 2014, there was a clear understanding between the group and the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna,” says Mohamed al-Jarah, a political researcher based in Libya. “The alliance was cut short when Nasser al-Aker, one of the council’s leaders, was killed in 2015 by IS militants. The fighting that ensued between the two groups ended with victory for the council and the imprisonment of hundreds of Islamic State members. But when the Libyan National Army announced its operation to ‘liberate’ Derna, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna reached a new understanding with the detained Islamic State militants, urging them to join them in their war against the army forces.”
For Jarah, it is possible that Ashmawy was in close proximity to Islamic State fighters inside Derna. “What we know is that Hesham Ashmawy and his fellow members in the Ansar Beit al-Maqdes group (before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and became the Sinai Province) who refused to join the Islamic State in Egypt, had a good relationship with all parties in Derna. Ashmawy’s previous relationships with the leaders and elements of IS in Derna, until the time of his arrest, may have allowed him to obtain such operational information about the terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Egypt.”
Brigadier Ahmad al-Mismari, the spokesman for the Libyan army, asserted in a news conference that armed groups operating in Derna have recently joined forces and that their attacks were highly coordinated, which might explain Ashmawy’s insights into the details of some Islamic State operations.
However, there is yet another loose thread in the attack, namely the meaning of the Islamic State’s reference to “chaste sisters.”
Following the failed attack on the church of the Virgin Mary in Musturud last August, the security forces arrested members of the terrorist group behind the attack, which included two women: Radwa Abdel Halim Sayed Amer and Noha Ahmed Abdel Momen Awad.
A day before the recent attack, 31 people were arrested, some of whom had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Aisha al-Shater, the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, and lawyer Hoda Abdel Moneim, a former member of the National Council for Human Rights.
Ahmed Mawlana, a researcher focused on Islamist groups, downplayed the significance of the reference in a statement to Mada Masr. “It is an expression that is routinely used by the group. It was used when Croatian national Tomislav Salopek was kidnapped in August 2015. The Islamic State demanded, in return for his release, that Muslim women who were imprisoned in Egypt be freed. When the demand was not met, the group killed him. With regards to the recent attack, there are other women who are detained that do not have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to lawyers and court referrals.”
Even outside the Muslim Brotherhood and militant relations in Libya, there is still the question of militant groups known to be operating inside Egypt.
Security forces have managed to conduct successive arrest campaigns targeting the Soldiers of the Caliphate group, an Islamic State affiliate, which is known as the Amr Saad group following its attack on St. Peters and St. Paul Church in December 2016. Many of the group’s members were arrested and referred to a military court, which sentenced 17 of them to death. There have been a number of raids conducted in the desert wastelands of Upper Egypt, in which security forces killed some of the group’s members.
Mawlana told Mada Masr that there is a possibility that the Islamic State was able to form a new group that would resume its strategy of targeting Christians, in an attempt to promote sectarian conflict. This would create a good environment for the group to expand and grow.
“It should be noted that the three most wanted militants in the church attacks case have not been arrested, including Amr Saad, which makes it more likely that they managed to form a new group,” Mawlana adds.
In May 2017, an interview with the alleged “leader of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Egypt” was published in Al-Nabaa newsletter, which is issued by the central media apparatus of the Islamic State. The interview held a great significance: the group now had an independent branch outside the Sinai Peninsula. It was not under the jurisdiction of the Sinai Province and was not acting in coordination with it.
The frequent mention of Amr Saad coincided with the publishing of the interview, prompting many to believe he was the new leader of the group in the Egyptian mainland.
The unidentified leader had this to say in his interview: “We have a brotherly, loving and loyal relationship with the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Sinai, and we are all the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai and in Egypt. Targeting churches is part of our fighting, and our war with infidelity and its people. To the Christians, we say this: the rule of Allah and His Messenger is upon you. You have only three choices: Islam, jizya or war.”
In the same month following the interview, a convoy of several buses was attacked on the route leading to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, killing 28 Coptic Christians, most of them children, and injuring more than 20 others, according to Health Ministry statements at the time.
A few days after the convoy was attacked in Minya last year, the Egyptian Air Force carried out a number of airstrikes targeting the Libyan city of Derna. The main headquarters of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna was destroyed. The Armed Forces said that the strikes targeted terrorist bases used by militants involved in planning and carrying out the attack. The Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna later issued a statement denying responsibility for the attack, hours after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for it.