In what seems like a mixture of a question, an exclamation, and a feeling of utter disbelief, ‘ISIS in Cairo’ is a phrase that has become part of almost every attempt at understanding the December 11 church bombing that killed 25 Coptic worshippers as well as the December 9 explosion that killed six police officers.
The statement in which ISIS claimed responsibility for the church bombing not only linked the two incidents, but also gave rise to concerns over targeting the capital, which had for a while been a far-fetched possibility with all terrorist attacks being mainly concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula.
Whether or not it is ISIS, the fact remains that Cairo is obviously becoming quite accessible and that a serious challenge is awaiting the state and the people in Egypt if this proves true.
General Ahmed al-Awadi, Member of Parliament and member of the Defense and National Security at the House of Representatives, argued that the shift in terrorist attacks from Sinai to Cairo is an extremely serious move on the part of militant groups. “Casualties in Cairo will definitely be much higher, especially among civilians, and terrorist attacks carried out in the capital are bound to be more shocking on both the local and international levels,” he said.
Change of location
Another reason for this change of location, according to Awadi, is the intensification of army attacks against militant groups in Sinai. “When those groups were besieged in Sinai they started looking for another place,” he explained, adding that moving to Cairo is also linked to an increase in funds received by these groups from foreign parties. “The more money they get, the more capable they will be to carry out operations in the capital,” he said.
Awadi noted that with the attacks now focused on Cairo, terrorists have made it absolutely urgent for security forces to start monitoring them closely: “There has to be enough updated intelligence on their whereabouts and their movements.”
Hamdi Bekhit, Member of Parliament, said that the two attacks are not just directed against police officers or Christian worshippers, but against Cairo in general. “But the problem is expected to expand beyond Cairo, for terrorist groups might take advantage of the fact that security forces are currently preoccupied with Cairo after the two attacks and take their operations to other governorates across Egypt,” he said, adding that this would be specifically the case during Christmas holidays when security is expected to be tightened around churches in Cairo.
Salah Eissa, Writer and Secretary General of Supreme Council of the Press, said that militant groups’ decision to take terrorist attacks to the heart of Egypt is linked to their relative failure in Sinai. “They realized that attacks in Sinai, which mainly target police and army officers, are not that effective and their losses there are more than their gains,” he said. “When attacks took place in Sinai, most Egyptians felt this was happening far away from them, but when they take place in Cairo, all Egyptians will feel vulnerable and frightened.”
According to Eissa, instilling fear into the hearts of Egyptians constitutes a success for terrorist groups. “They also doubled this success when they targeted Christians in particular in the second attack because it is in their best interest to prove to Christians that security forces are not capable of protecting them, thus turning them against the regime that they previously supported in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood.”
More effort needed
According to journalist Bashir al-Bakr, this is the first time two major terrorist attacks have taken place in Cairo within 48 hours, which is a very dangerous sign. “This means that ISIS and groups affiliated to it are getting out of control and that the Egyptian regime is not learning from the repercussions of such development in other countries in the region,” he wrote. Bakr said that the state is partially responsible for the attacks on two levels.
“On the level of security, the state has to make more efforts in order to block all the possible sources of terror and terrorists. On the political level, the state has to realize that the security measures it has been adopting cannot alone eliminate terrorism.”
Concerning the latter, Bakr argued that the Egyptian regime does not want to look at the bigger pictureand see the situation from all its dimensions. “The state only takes the parts that suit it out of context so that at the end terrorist attacks are seen to happen because a group of evil people want to kill innocent civilians and spread chaos.”
Ahmed Ban, an expert in Islamic militant groups, argued that the Egyptian police are partially responsible because of the strategies they have been following in the war on terror. “For decades, the Egyptian police fought terrorism through torture and killing outside the law, thus creating a monstrous virus that mutates in a frightening manner,” he wrote.
“On the other hand, the police do not develop whether in terms of ideology or training and that is why terrorist groups manage to take them by surprise.” Ban said acceptance of such “lousy performance”makes the police an “accomplice” in such attacks.
‘It is a war’
General Mohamed Nour al-Din, security expert and former Deputy Interior Minister, refused to consider terrorists’ ability to reach the heart of Cairo as an indication of failure on the part of security forces. “Terrorism is targeting the entire world and not only Egypt, and terrorists managed to reach capitals that are presumably more secure and where security systems are supposed to be more advanced such as Paris and Brussels,” he said. “Nobody said then that security systems in France and Belgium are incompetent.”
Al Din added that Egypt, like the rest of the world, is facing a terrorist group that managed to destroy entire countries. “Egypt is up against a ferocious enemy and this is shown in the Cairo attacks that took place despite the clampdown on militant groups by Egyptian security forces,” he added. “In the war on terrorism, breaches are always possible and terrorists do score victories at times. This is why it is a war.”