Yesterday, an explosion outside the nearly empty Italian Consulate in Cairo killed one person and injured seven. It’s the first major bombing of a foreign diplomatic mission since the upswing in attacks against the Egyptian government since June 2014 when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected to the presidency.
Many suggest the rise in attacks against the Egyptian state is mainly part of the ISIS project for Egypt.
In Egypt, the ISIS’s Sinai Province formerly (Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) is a hub of ISIS activity. But it is important to note that the cult-like ability for ISIS to recruit sympathizers and lone wolves may be strong in Egypt. An Egyptian official told me that ISIS is attracting more and more disenchanted Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) sympathizers. In other words, the nexus between ISIS as a Sunni extremist group and the Ikhwan is growing stronger to the point that the Brotherhood’s revolutionary stance of violence could be matching ISIS’s violent goals. That’s dangerous. Thus, the attack on the Italian consulate, claimed by ISIS, is symptomatic of the current ISIS program for Egypt.
Let’s face the truth: ISIS in Egypt is on a roll. For all the violence against Egyptian military personnel and police officers killed in the past year, we need to think about how ISIS in Egypt is hijacking the agenda of other Islamist militants not caught up in security sweeps. Recent attacks also have the hallmark of ISIS including Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations, including the Karnak Temple in Luxor, threatening a pillar of the country’s economy. On social media, some ISIS members say they are gunning for the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. It is highly recommended to take their threats seriously.
This month’s offensive by ISIS in Egypt mirrored the attacks on France, Tunisia, and Kuwait on the 9th day of Ramadan. Almost simultaneously, an obscure Giza Popular Resistance claimed the killing of Egyptian Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat. A few hours before the targeted killing, Sinai Province, the local appendage of the ISIS “Caliphate” in the Levant, released a video titled “The Liquidation of Judges” which I believe served as a justification for the upcoming assassination. Simultaneously, hundreds of ISIS militants from Sinai Province attacked up to 15 Egyptian military sites in Northern Sinai including the urban area of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah with dozens of Egyptian soldiers dead. The ISIS militants used a wide range of weapons, deploying an arsenal of rocket-propelled grenades, Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, and mortars in synchronization with roadside improvised explosive devices.
Egyptian President Al-Sisi visited Italy last November. Sisi also visited Pope Francis to restore relations between al-Azhar and the Vatican. In addition, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stated strongly that the country is seeking to build a strong defense and military relationship with Egypt because of the threat from Islamic extremists, specifically ISIS and al-Qaeda franchises. Renzi argued that “Italy is absolutely convinced that the Mediterranean is not the frontier but the heart of Europe, and Egypt must be considered a strategic partner in addressing together the problems of this area. The only way to avoid an escalation of them is through very strong cooperation between Egypt and Europe.” Let’s be clear that the primary point of impact of the Libyan situation in Europe is Italy. Italy has borne the brunt of Libyan refugees and the political fallout regarding this refugees is affecting the country’s security. Perhaps ISIS and its minions see the Italian consulate as a simple statement of what comes next.
In regard to Italian targets, we need to recall ISIS’s gruesome February 2014 “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross” when 21 Egyptian Copts were executed on a Libyan beach. It is well known that ISIS in Libya through the Derna, Sirte and affiliated Vilayet system are connected to extremists who use Western Egypt as a transit zone for weapons across North Africa. Sinai Province, demonstrating their reach, has launched attacks in this area before against Egyptian forces over the past year.
Italy is also helping Egypt in monitoring the situation in Libya through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Italy may also be a target because of the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn-ISIS connection in turning a blind eye to that government’s activity in migrant smuggling to southern Europe. Recently, an EU official recently announced that ISIS are using these migrant routes to send its adherents to Europe.
The key issue is now how the Egyptian government contends with the ISIS threat in the coming months. Clearly, the Egyptian air force responding with F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters following the Northern Sinai attack were robust and halted the onslaught. Egypt’s use of its military assets is known against the so-called Derna Province in Libya. But the response is just that: a response, not mitigation.
Attacks on foreign national interests in Egypt by ISIS and their allies cannot become a norm.Dr. Theodore Karasik
Clearly, Egyptian national security is being challenged by ISIS. The requirements to protect not only Cairo but other urban areas – including infrastructure and tourism sectors - are critical. But the Egyptian government needs to be more alert to the gaps that ISIS – as a cult – can fill in rural areas, particularly the Upper Nile. The key question is whether ISIS activity in Egypt will push Sisi to launch a campaign with the Tobruk government in Libya to clean up the militant threat together. Perhaps that time is now here.
The other issue is what to do about the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt’s security policy needs revamping to tear down the ISIS Province that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis established. Sinai Province launched the exact same attack on January 28, 2015, when the deviants carried out multiple, simultaneous attacks against Egyptian security forces in the vicinity of El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. In between the two attacks of January and July, didn’t the Egyptian government learn what to expect from ISIS?
Apparently not. This fact is why Egyptian security forces need to be augmented for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations. Sisi needs to become more aggressive with the extremists on their territory in the coming days and months, including weaving the right counter voices in social media and the Egyptian press.
These repeated attacks throughout Egypt do not bode well for the country’s future unless clear adjustments are made to the government’s strategic and tactics. Attacks on foreign national interests in Egypt by ISIS and their allies cannot become a norm.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.