Militant groups in Egypt aim to capitalise on perceived silent unrest in Egypt with rising IED attacks

This section is an updated extract from Le Beck's Weekly Security Brief that provides in-depth insight on more strategic issues affecting the MENA region.

In the latest in a series of rising numbers of attempted and successful attacks, the Cairo/Giza area has seen four IEDs in as many days. This includes one that detonated on February 18 near the capital’s Dar al-Ahmaras area as police pursued a suspect carrying the device and three that were discovered on February 15. Of those three, one was discovered at Nahda Square and two at Giza Square in Cairo, with one of the latter two exploding as police attempted to dismantle it. This resulted in the injury of one police officer and at least one civilian, while the other two devices were successfully defused. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) subsequently described the events at Giza Square as a failed attempt by “Muslim Brotherhood” (MB) members to attack security forces.  

This now brings the total number of IEDs witnessed in the Giza/Cairo area since December to six, following one on January 6 that was dismantled at a Coptic church in Nasr City and another on December 28 that killed three Vietnamese tourists, the latter of which the MoI attributed to radical MB offshoot Hasm. This increase in attacks in and around the capital is especially notable given the decline witnessed over the past year and is likely to serve as a further blow to the already struggling tourist industry in the country.

Regarding these most recent attacks, it is also worthwhile to mention that they targeted distinguishable locations in Cairo, with Nahda Square and, to a lesser extent Giza Square previously serving as focal points for MB protests, particularly those spearheaded by students of the nearby Cairo University. These also do recall the series of IEDs that followed the June 2013 military intervention that led to former president Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and to the rise to power of then-General and now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In this context, while these recent attacks have not been claimed - possibly because they can’t truly be considered successful - these were carried out either by radicalised MB elements, given the locations and the modus operandi of the spate of IEDs seen during the aforementioned time period, or by other groups seeking to potentially attract disenchanted MB members into their ranks.

The first possibility could point to Hasm as behind the IEDs. Indeed, as noted above, the MoI blamed them for the attack that targeted tourists in December, while the group is known to be active in and around the capital. There are, however, a few factors that reduce this likelihood. Firstly, their involvement in the December, January, and February 18 attacks would necessite a substantial shift in modus operandi that is not often seen. The first two (tourists and Copts) would necessitate a shift in targets from exclusively government/security forces and installations - alongside frequent emphasis in their propaganda that they refrain from hitting civilians. The last one would point to a change in their type of attack, with a video of the incident suggesting that the perpetrator deliberately activated the explosive device and committed suicide in order to avoid being caught. Although it certainly could have been a split-second decision, it could also indicate adoption of the more radical jihadist notion of martyrdom via suicide attack, with no indication from all of Hasm’s prior attacks that this is part of their ideology.

Another option is that Hasm was not involved at all and that other radicalised MB elements, including those part of the loose network of “Popular Resistance Committees” (PRCs) and unaffiliated with Hasm, were responsible. Given the modus operandi and at least some of the targets, reminiscent of the previously-mentioned period of time when these networks were far more active, the possibility that these elements are attempting to resurface should not be dismissed. Here too, however, the IED at the Coptic Church wouldn’t fit: although targeting tourists could be legitimised as an effort to reduce the economic benefits that the state obtains from tourism (and thus possibly be equated to the IEDs seen in the lead up to the Egypt Economic Development Conference) attacks against the country’s Christian minority falls outside the PRCs traditional modus operandi.

Finally, there are also other elements capable of carrying these attacks that are both interested in planting IEDs generally and attracting MB members by tapping into the perception among the group’s supporters that the organisation is failing to fight the Egyptian regime. This includes the Islamic State (IS), which has proven capable of operating in mainland Egypt through a series of attacks that have mostly focused on the Coptic Christian community and that has shown a failure to discriminate between civilians and government/security-afflicted targets. The lack of claims of responsibility, however, would be notable, given that they have previously claimed several attacks in mainland Egypt. At the same time, they have also, on occasion, deliberately failed to do so both in Egypt and abroad, whether because it would be unpopular or as a means of stoking tensions between the government and other groups. Similarly, al-Qaeda (AQ)-linked elements are also reemerging, with sources suggesting that they may be behind several attacks, including an ambush in al-Wahat in 2017 that was never claimed yet was later linked to these elements.

Regardless, any of these possibilities point to a growing threat in mainland Egypt despite multiple security raids over the past months and years. While the frequency of these attacks cannot be compared to the near-daily occurrence of IEDs seen across mainland Egypt at certain periods between 2013 and 2015, the recent ones do suggest the potential for such a trend to at least partly return. Radical elements may, indeed, be attempting to capitalise on the perceived (and unexpressed) political and socio-economic frustration, given the lack of a credible and viable political opposition, particularly at a time when the Egyptian regime is consolidating its power in the long-term through the recent constitutional amendments.