Two days after the terrorist attack on 2 November in Minya the Interior Ministry announced that it had killed 19 of the terrorists who ambushed Copts returning from the Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor in Gebel Al-Qalamoun in Minya governorate.
“Field and technical working teams were formed immediately after the incident, with the participation of all relevant sectors of the ministry, and a plan of pursuit was devised based on information that had been gathered and the perpetrators’ likely escape route,” said a statement released by the ministry.
Areas frequented or used as bases by the suspects were combed, especially the remote areas terrorists use as hideouts or as staging posts for their attacks.
Information revealed that the group of terrorists who carried out the attack members of a cell based in a mountainous area in the western desert portion of the Minya governorate.
The statement went on to detail that when security forces began to surround the area the terrorists opened fire. By the time the confrontation ended 19 terrorists had been killed.
Their identities have not yet been disclosed. The Interior Ministry released photographs of the location of the raid and of the bodies of the terrorists. Some of the images showed recently printed documents with Islamic State (IS) flags. Other photographs showed religious books.
IS immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. On Saturday, the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency posted a statement claiming that IS fighters had targeted buses transporting Copts on a trip to the St Samual Monastery the Confessor in Minya.
However, the language used in the statement differed from that used in a previous statement claiming responsibility for a similar attack against Copts on a visit to the same monastery in May 2017.
On the earlier occasion the IS statement used an Iraqi term for a military detachment — mafraza — which is rarely used by Egyptian terrorist organisations.
This, plus other linguistic/rhetorical indicators, raised suspicions that IS may have hastened to claim responsibility for an attack in which it played no role in an attempt to show it remains a force to be reckoned with.
The IS affiliate in Egypt may have wanted to demonstrate it is able to continue to carry out attacks against Coptic targets, such as the bombings of the churches in Alexandria and Tanta, although it should be borne in mind the claim of responsibility comes at a time when the organisation is heavily incapacitated and hemmed in by Comprehensive Operation Sinai (COS) 2018.
Suspicions immediately turned to Al-Qaeda rather than IS or its Egyptian affiliate, as being behind the attack.
The attack in Minya occurred a day after Internet sites affiliated with Al-Qaeda and with the Muslim Brotherhood broadcast a documentary, The Oasis: A Lethal Trap, which paid tribute to the leaders of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Morabitoun organisation, founded in Libya by the discharged Egyptian army officer Hisham Ashmawi, recently apprehended in Libya.
The film contained testimonies by participants in the Bahariya Oasis terrorist attack that claimed the lives of many policemen in October last year.
The film was lauded by Muslim Brotherhood leaders who hailed Ashmawi’s colleagues, Emad Abdel-Hamid, who was killed in the operation and Omar Rifaai Sorour, the organisation’s mufti killed several months ago in Derna, as “martyrs”.
This caused analysts to reassess the Muslim Brotherhood’s connection with recent events and, in particular, to posit a relationship between militant Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like Hasm, implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, and Al-Qaeda.
Some observers have picked up on the similarity between the voice of the narrator in the documentary and statements previously broadcast by Hasm, leading Mohamed Gomaa, a researcher with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, to conclude the film was a piece of propaganda, made by Hasm for Al-Qaeda.
He says the threat to Egypt from Ashmawi’s group continues in spite of the elimination of Morabitoun leaders and the arrest of Ashmawi, himself, in Libya.
Eyewitness accounts of the terrorist attack in Minya confirm that gunmen in a vehicle unleashed rounds of rapid fire against three buses.The buses were driving on an unpaved side road to the monastery because the main road had been closed to all vehicles apart from those with a permit from security authorities.
The alternative road was well known and easily accessible to the terrorists, says Ali Bakr, an expert on extremist movements. He believes that the group responsible for the attack may have been helped by local collaborators.
Bakr also argues that, if this was an Al-Qaeda operation, it could have been carried out by “local elements who had formed a sleeping cell subordinate to Ashmawi’s Al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya”. “After Ashmawi’s arrest, they found themselves at a dead end organisationally, especially given the tightening of security along the western border with Libya. They therefore embarked on the Minya attack as a last ditch jihadist suicide operation.
”The foregoing scenarios may not exclude the IS hypothesis but they do weaken it, especially given that none of the members of the organisation have been arrested.
It should also be borne in mind that the IS affiliate in Sinai has had its infrastructure destroyed and any ability to move from Sinai into the Nile Valley seriously curtailed.
Timing was a crucial factor in the Minya attack. As mentioned above it occurred a day after the film The Oasis: A Lethal Trap was broadcast in order to remind viewers of previous terrorist events in the Western Oases and Upper Egypt.
It also followed military and security statements that confirmed the success of a series of debilitating pre-emptive strikes against terrorists in Sinai.
That it occurred in tandem with the launch of the International Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh suggests one purpose was to show Egypt was not safe from terrorist attacks and that the country remained unstable.
For his part, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asked forum participants to stand in mourning for the victims of the attack and offered his condolences to their relatives.
On his official Twitter account he reaffirmed the government’s resolve to sustain efforts to fight terrorism and to hunt down the criminals. He stressed that the recent attack “will not diminish our nation’s will to continue the battle for survival and construction”.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reasonable doubts