Giza Bus Attack Threatens Egypt’s Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 2


Egyptian security forces killed 40 militants in a shoot-out during an operation that targeted three strongholds in Giza province and North Sinai on December 29. A statement by the ministry of interior stated “police confiscated a number of guns, ammunition and explosive charges that were in the possession of the targeted terrorists” (Al-Masry Al-Youm, December 29, 2018). The counter-terror operation, which occurred one day before New Year’s Eve, was aimed at foiling militant plans to “destabilize the tourism sector and Christian worship places during the new year and Christmas celebrations.”

The security operation came in response to a terrorist attack, less than 10 hours earlier, wherein a roadside bomb hit a bus carrying 14 Vietnamese tourists along a route almost eight miles away from the Giza pyramids. The blast left four people dead and 11 others injured and was the first attack that targeted foreigners in almost two years (Al-Youm Al-Sabae, December 28, 2018).

The Ministry of Interior explained that the improvised explosive device (IED) was hidden beside a wall but did not yet blame any suspects and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Yet, it is likely that either the Hasm movement or Lew al-Thawra group—Islamist militants that emerged after the crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood in 2014—were involved, given “both groups were in charge of similar attacks in the past which left limited damage, also Hasm operates in the area where the operation is carried out” said Mounir Adeeb, a counter-terror expert in Cairo, “The attack is meant to scare the government of the return of larger-scale militant operations that hard-hit the tourism sector and affected the overall security situation in the 1990s” Adeeb added. [1]

The crackdown on Hasm militants a week earlier which resulted in the death of eight members and arrest of four others likely would not have prevented other potential members of the group from carrying out the IED attack on the tourist bus (Al-Masry Al-Youm, December 20, 2018).

Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly told local TV, “The bus deviated from the route secured by the security forces…We have been in contact with the embassy of Vietnam to contain the impact of the incident, and what is important now is to take care of the injured,” he said (Tahrir News, December 28, 2018). The bus driver later told local media he had followed a standard tourist bus route.

The bus bombing comes at a time when the tourism sector has showed some signs of recovery after nearly eight years of stagnation as a result of the political turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising. In the first six months of 2018, tourism revenue had increased by 77 percent to $4.781 billion amid an upsurge of visitors. More than 5 million tourists visited the country compared to 3.6 million, an increase of 41 percent compared to same time frame in 2017 (Al-youm Al-Sabae, August 29, 2018).

Over the past two years, the intensive military operations, coupled with the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) have undermined the scale of terrorist operations across the country, compared to 2015-2016 which witnessed the peak of terrorism in Egypt.

Yet, nothing was more tragic on both the tourism and security situation than the downing of the Russian passenger plane by a bomb planted by IS which left all 224 people on board killed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in October 2015. The terrorist attack has indeed embarrassed the Egyptian government to the point President Abdul-Fatah el-Sisi had only admitted that it was a terrorist act almost four months after the crash (Al-Hayat, October 31, 2015).

Considering the 224 tourists killed, the terrorist attack is one of the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history, and the deadliest air disaster both in the history of Russian aviation and within Egyptian territory. The blow that the attack dealt to Egypt’s security situation pushed the Egyptian government to intensify counter-terror campaigns in Sinai.

The campaign has remarkably undermined the IS threat in Sinai but a by-product of the Sinai operation is the emergence of cluster cells such as Hasm, whose members are scattered throughout Egypt’s mainland. Hasm members focus more on softer targets, using IEDs detonated remotely or on a timer.

Beside targeting tourists, one of the key soft targets is the Coptic Christian community, a minority in Egypt but the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, with a population between 10 to 15 million. For instance, on January 5, a policeman was killed and two other injured as they were trying to defuse an explosive device planted near a church in a slum area in Cairo (Albawaba News, January 5).


After sustaining heavy losses in the past two years from the military’s counter-terror operations, which mainly focused on hard-core militants in Sinai, militant groups in Egypt’s mainland are likely to focus on softer targets such as tourists or Coptic Christians rather than directly clashing with the security forces. The militants’ goal is engaging in a war of attrition to weaken and embarrass the government. This threat requires extra intelligence work and the launching of preemptive attacks on members of such groups while eliminating the environment that allows extremism to grow, especially in disadvantaged communities and slums. 

The Sisi government is working to dismantle slums in the Egyptian mainland where extremism grows and replacing them with satellite cities and compounds. In January, the government inaugurated the country’s biggest mosque and cathedral in Egypt’s new capital, dubbed the New Administrative Capital, located 30 miles east of Cairo. Security forces have demolished several houses in a populated area adjacent to the Pyramids, close to where the bus blast occurred.

Overall, the government is imposing emergency law in Sinai, and the military has built buffer zones alongside the borders between North Sinai and Palestinian Gaza. In Egypt’s mainland, police have carried out several preemptive attacks that killed a significant number of armed militants. Yet, the struggle continues on both sides as the counter-terror operations drive militants to hide in more populated areas in the Delta. 


[1] Mr. Adeeb was interviewed by the author on January 8, 2019.