Why ISIS Declared War on Egypt’s Christians

A man sits on a bench outside a church after a bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt, Sunday, April 9, 2017.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

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A man sits on a bench outside a church after a bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt, Sunday, April 9, 2017.

The group has been exporting Iraq-style sectarian tactics to the Arab world’s most populous country.

Four months after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 28 Christian worshipers in Cairo, the group struck Egypt’s Christians again—this time with a double church bombing on Palm Sunday that left at least 44 dead and scores injured. The attacks, only hours apart, targeted a church in the Delta city of Tanta as well as a church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading a service. It was the single deadliest day of violence directed against the Middle East’s largest Christian community in decades.

When the ISIS claim of responsibility came within hours of the attacks, it wasn’t a surprise. For months, the Islamic State has been accelerating the import of Iraq-style sectarian tactics to Egypt. In doing so, the group hopes to destabilize the Middle East’s most populous country and expand the reach of its by now clearly genocidal project for the region’s minorities.

Egyptian authorities have thus far been unable to keep up with this escalating threat. This may be largely due to their own incompetence, but it also reflects the increasing sophistication of ISIS assets directed at Egypt. As the group goes on the defensive elsewhere, mainland Egypt is too attractive a potential front in its jihad to pass up. It appears that the group is now focusing more time, resources, and most importantly ISIS talent on Egypt, making the situation likely to worsen in the future.

Targeting Egypt’s Christians is a cold and calculated strategy for the group. ISIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling. Several explosions have rocked Cairo and the Delta since 2013, carried out by both ISIS and its precursor group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which pledged its allegiance to Raqqa in 2014. Yet despite this, Islamic State efforts had before now largely floundered in mainland Egypt—where nearly 97 percent of the population resides—due in part to the strength of the central government, the amateur nature of Islamic State assets, and perhaps most importantly, the relative cohesiveness of Egyptian society. The group has fared much better in the remote North Sinai, where it has killed over a thousand government troops in recent years, but the area is simply too far away from Cairo to constitute an existential threat to the government.

And so, although the Palm Sunday attacks were hardly the first time Egypt’s Christians were targeted by jihadis, Islamists, or even ordinary Muslim mobs, they represent a sea change in the nature of the threat Egypt’s Christians now face, with far-reaching implications for the country as a whole.

ISIS has taken the radical step of positing that Christians are to Egypt what the Shia are to Iraq, embracing the position that they can be killed indiscriminately and for no reason other than for what they believe. Since the December 2016 Cairo church bombing, the group’s supporters online have been forcefully pushing this notion, claiming that the Christians of Egypt were first and foremost polytheists and that due to the “treachery” they had showed, by presumably “allying” with the West and the Egyptian government, they had to be killed.

Egyptian ISIS supporters launched an online “Campaign to Surveil Egypt’s Apostates” in order to crowdsource targeting information; they produced crudely made “wanted dead” posters to urge supporters to take action. A glimpse of the possible implications was on display last February, when hundreds of Christians in North Sinai fled their homes in panic after seven Christians were brutally murdered by IS fighters.   

The strategy is in reality not the result of an ideological revision inside ISIS. And its implementation has serious repercussions for Egypt’s security, and if successful, for regional stability. For years members of the group, and jihadis in general, have struggled with the important question of why jihad has failed in mainland Egypt. The question is fundamental for the group not only because of Egypt’s size, but also because it tests whether the jihadi project can succeed in countries not already torn by civil war or hopelessly destabilized.

One 2014 jihadi “study” by an ISIS ideologue, Abu Mawdud al-Harmasy, is instructive. Titled “The Secret of The Egyptian Enigma,” the author first laments that Egyptian Muslims are like cattle for not understanding “the reality of the struggle,” before offering his “keys for jihadi success.” Among them is “sectarian killing of Christians” in order to inflame certain rural areas, and “most importantly targeting directly every Christian without exceptions.” He goes on to say that inflaming sectarian strife will be the key to “revealing the reality of the conflict and [inciting] the latent feelings of the Muslims towards their [Christian] creed;” to him, only after targeting minorities happened in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen did jihad take hold in those places. The author concludes with this exhortation: “Do not leave any infidel Christian in Egypt until you threatened their life.” In recent months in Egypt ISIS has also begun to take a similar tone toward Sufis, who constitute a large share of Muslims in Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere, decapitating two Sufi clerics in Sinai and forcing others to “repent.”

It is unlikely that this strategy will succeed the way ISIS envisions in Egypt, but the attempt to implement it will leave a trail of destruction that will primarily devastate Egypt’s Christian minority. The group’s genocidal program may perhaps backfire as it did for their jihadi predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s, whose wanton killing of civilians dried up any base of popular support. But as the ISIS ideologue al-Harmasy hints, there is deep-rooted sectarianism in Egyptian society that has been fanned by Islamists for decades, to which government policies have also contributed. Egypt, like many other states in the region, still enforces blasphemy laws, places discriminatory restrictions on the building of churches, and fails to prosecute sectarian offenders, while Islamists continue to spew hate against minorities unchecked. Sectarianism wouldn’t have worked so well for ISIS in Egypt, or elsewhere before it, had the group not found an ideological context where its radical ideas could thrive.

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