During the past two months, Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented wave of attacks by Islamist militants, mostly launched by the Islamic State’s Egyptian branch—which calls itself “Sinai Province,” and which was formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—against tourists in Luxor, the chief prosecutor, a naval vessel, the Italian Consulate in Cairo and various army targets in Sinai. These attacks not only aimed to weaken the Egyptian state and the government and credibility of the country’s president General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, but also to gain territory in Sinai and to damage the Egyptian economy.
At the start of July, the Sinai Province organization launched some of the most deadly attacks against the army since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, with a series of coordinated attacks on July 1 in Sinai’s al-Arish city killing around 17 Egyptian soldiers and injuring tens more (al-Watan, July 1). Unlike previous attacks since the military takeover two years ago, the simultaneous raids were reminiscent of Islamic State tactics elsewhere, involving attacks on around 15 army checkpoints, mining a street leading to al-Arish’s police station, raising the Islamic State’s black flag on the rooftops of some buildings and deploying hundreds of militants, leading to an 11-hour long battle. This assault, therefore, marked a striking escalation from previous hit-and-run attacks, and the goal this time was not only to inflict loses on the Egyptian Army ranks, but also to apparently gain control of Shaykh Zuweid, a Bedouin-populated town near al-Arish that is the main stronghold of the group on the border with the Gaza Strip. Despite the scale of the militant attack, however, Egyptian F-16 aircraft and Apache attack helicopters gained the upper hand in the battle, and the militants were forced to withdraw after sustaining major loses, according to statement by the group (al-Bedaiha, July 3). The army’s spokesperson, Muhammad Samir Abd al-Aziz Ghoneim, later claimed that the Egyptian army had killed at least 100 militants (Facebook, July 1).
Despite the Egyptian Army’s victory, however, the attacks raises important questions, particularly around how the militants had obtained large qualities of sophisticated weaponry, including Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and other guided missiles, despite the military’s continuous raids in Sinai, the closing down the tunnels with Rafah and the government forming a new joint military command to fight terrorism east of the Suez Canal (al-Watan, July 1). Three days after the Sinai attacks, al-Sisi made a visit to troops in Sinai, appearing in a military battle dress for the first time since assuming office last year, and delivered a televised speech—his first public comments on the attack—saying that Egypt had foiled an attempt by the Islamic State to seize territory and set up an extremist state. At the same time, however, he also sought to downplay the recent violence, saying: “Rafah and Shaykh Zuwaid is only five percent of the total size of 6,000-kilometers Sinai, the troops stationed in Sinai are only one percent of the whole Egyptian Army, the air force working there is only one percent of the total Egyptian Air Force; the Egyptian Army is able to show 1,000 times more than what it showed” (al-Hayat, July 4). “We will never leave Sinai,” al-Sisi added, “Sinai is ours. Sinai will not separate from Egypt unless all of us are killed.”
Soon afterwards, however, Sinai Province carried out another when it fired a rocket at an Egyptian naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, near the coast of Israel and the Gaza Strip. The group, on July 16, posted footage on its Twitter account showing a rocket being fired towards the vessel and claiming to have destroying it and killed all soldiers onboard (al-Arabiya, July 16). However, Egypt’s military spokesperson, writing on his Facebook page, denied the Islamic State narrative, saying instead that “a coast guard launch suspected some terrorist movements on the coast, and while chasing them, the coast guard exchanged fire with terrorist elements, causing the vessel to catch fire, and there were no casualties” (Facebook, July 16).
Prosecutor General Assassination
In separate indication of the militants’ growing ambition, on June 29, two days before the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprising against Islamist former president Muhammad Mursi, Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor Hisham Barakat was killed in a car bombing targeting his heavily secured convoy (al-Youm al-Sabea, June 29). Barakat had been the architect of the state’s judicial crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members and associated dissent. His killing is the first successful assassination of a high-profile figure in decades, as well as being the first assassination in Egypt’s modern history to use a car bomb. Following his death, al-Sisi called in a televised speech for an increased legal battle against Islamists and to take revenge for killing who he dubbed as “the voice of Egypt that they wanted to silence.” The government also cancelled all prepared anniversary celebrations (al-Ahram, June 29).
Sinai Province had called earlier for attacks on the judiciary, after the hanging of six militants. In an audio statement posted on a prominent jihadist website, the leader of Sinai Province, Abu Osama al-Masry, said “It is wrong for the tyrants to jail our brothers,” he said, referring to judges: “Poison their food… survey them at home and in the street… destroy their homes with explosives if you can” (al-Jazeera, April 21). However, the group did not take credit for the assassination itself, and it is so far unclear which group carried out the attack. Barakat had previously sent thousands of Islamists to trial as part of a two-year crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government designates as a terrorist group, although there is also no evidence linking the organization to the assassination.
Two days after Egypt’s public prosecutor was assassinated, however, Egypt’s special security forces raided an apartment in the 6th of October Province and killed nine Muslim Brotherhood members, including a lawyer and a former member of parliament. An interior ministry statement said those killed were fugitives who had been meeting to plan terrorist plots. It added that the group included two people who had previously been sentenced to death, and they were killed in an exchange of fire with policemen (al-Watan, July 1). However, the Muslim Brotherhood denied these claims and called for a rebellion against al-Sisi, claiming that the nine were “murdered in cold blood,” while also not specifying the precise meaning of “rebellion” (Ikhwan Online, July 1).
Thwarted Attack in Karnak Temple
In addition to these attacks, earlier on June 10, two terrorists were killed and another wounded in a foiled attack at the Karnak Temple, one of Luxor’s tourist landmarks (al-Ahram, June 10). According to eyewitnesses, a taxi driver reported to a policeman that three suspicious individuals were waiting at the nearby parking lot for tourists to arrive to the temple, prompting the policeman to attempt to check their identities. As a result of his intervention, before the tourists could arrive, one of the assailants blew himself up, and the other two gunmen began shooting at the policeman and at other security officials in the area, leading to the killing of one assailant and the wounding and arrest of the other (al-Masry al-Youm, June 10). The intervening policeman and his colleagues received minor injuries, and no tourists were killed or injured (al-Ahram, June 10).
The authorities later identified the Karnak attackers as Ali Gamal Ahmad Ali, from Beni Suef Province, Mohamed Farag Hamed from Gharbia Governorate and Saeed Abdul Salam Sayyed Mohamed from Minya Province. The investigation also suggested that the first was a member of Sinai Province (al-Masry al-Youm, June 12). Egyptian media reported that the three militants were heavily armed, possessing nine hand-grenades, three machine guns with 300 rounds of ammunition, two explosive belts and further small bombs. The attackers’ plan was apparently to begin randomly shooting tourists when their buses arrived, and then potentially to blow themselves up after they were arrested to inflict further casualties (al-Masry al-Youm, June 14).
The attempted Karnak Temple attack is the first of its kind in Egypt’s southern provinces since 1997, when six al-Gama’a al-Islamiya members killed 62 people, most of them tourists, at Hatshepsut’s Temple also in Luxor; this was the most fatal terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history. The recently thwarted attack was likely planned to be as catastrophic as the 1997 one and was almost certainly intended to hit the Egyptian economy by directly harming foreign investments and tourism; tourism alone accounts for 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and 19 percent of its foreign currency revenues. Significantly damaging this sector would undermine the government’s financial stability and hopes of any economic recovery, one of al-Sisi’s stated main goals. Although the attack was unsuccessful, it is nonetheless reported to have impacted tourist numbers and bookings (al-Watan, June 10). The operation also signals the Sinai Province group’s ambitions to play a role in the south of Egypt, and it is the group’s first attack in the area, the organization having previously only carried out operations in the Sinai, Cairo and the Nile Delta areas in the north. Notably, the attackers themselves were from southern Egyptian provinces. However, the attack’s failure potentially suggests that the militants lack well-trained figures in this part of Egypt, with its members there potentially only having been trained partly or even entirely online.
The attack is also significant because while Islamist militants have been regularly targeting security personnel and installations, until now they have avoided direct attacks on tourist sites or against civilians, largely because they do not want to damage relations with Egyptian civilians or create dissent among embattled Islamists. This reflects the belief that widespread popular revulsion against the 1997 Luxor attack led al-Gama’a al-Islamiya at that time to revise their ideology and renounce violence after years of insurgency, as well as empowering the security services to crackdown on the group, effectively destroying the group’s militant capability. However, further underlining contemporary militants’ growing willingness to attack foreign targets, on July 11, a car bomb hit the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo, killing one civilian. The strong blast occurred at 6:30 am, when the area was less busy with pedestrians. The “Islamic State in Egypt” later claimed responsibility for the explosion on Twitter, saying that “Islamic State soldiers exploded a booby-trapped car carrying 450 [kilograms] of explosive charges targeting the HQ of the Italian Consulate in Cairo” (al-Arabiya, July 11). The precise relationship between the “Islamic State in Egypt” and the group’s “Sinai Province” wing is presently unclear.
The recent increase in militant attacks in Egypt, including by affiliates of the Islamic State group, does not necessarily mean that the militants will be able to repeat the success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Reasons for this include the fact that that the Egyptian Army is one of the three strongest armies in the Middle East and the lack of inter-Muslim sectarian rivalries, even though there is a risk that al-Sisi’s policies against Islamists do risk triggering more militant violence and potentially strengthening terrorist organizations in some respects. It is also significant that despite the intensity of attacks in Sinai, Egyptian soldiers did not retreat like other armies, notably the Iraqi Army in Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq in mid-2014, and also that the attempted major terrorist attack in Luxor was successfully foiled by the quick reaction of the local police. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that if the attack had succeeded, tens of tourists would have potentially been killed, and Egypt’s tourism sector would have been damaged for years, with important knock-on effects for the Egyptian economy and al-Sisi’s credibility. In addition to the growing ambitions of Egyptian militants, a further important factor in the coming months will be the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude to violence; at times, the group has seemed to encourage their followers to use violence on the grounds that they are not able to peacefully express their opposition to the government. For instance, in a recent post on the group’s official website, the Muslim Brotherhood urged its supporters to “resist this coup by all means until the fall of the regime” and referred to the “legitimate right to self-defense,” although these terms were not practically defined (Ikhwan Online, July 15). That said, while the government has been quick to highlight the Muslim Brotherhood’s potential threat, that group’s actions—for now, at least—are highly limited, especially compared to the recent attacks by the Sinai Province organization.
Muhammad Mansour is an investigative journalist who covers a broad range of topics related to Egyptian politics and global affairs.