Egypt experienced two terrorist attacks this week, one in Arish and the other — a suicide bombing — in the Darb Al-Ahmar district near Al-Azhar. The attacks had many elements in common in terms of timing and targets as well as in the public outrage they generated.
On Tuesday, in Darb Al-Ahmar, Al-Hassan Abdallah, 37, blew himself up when a security detail tried to arrest him after a four-day manhunt following an attempt to plant an IED near a police unit stationed by al-Istiqama Mosque in Giza Square. Explosive experts succeeded in defusing the device.
Abdallah was tracked to the Darb Al-Ahmar district where he was seen on the motorcycle he had used to flee Giza Square. When confronted by police he detonated an explosive belt, killing three policemen and himself. The explosion took place in a crowded quarter and wounded several passers-by.
Preliminary information released by the Interior Ministry suggests the terrorist was a supporter of ousted president Mohamed Morsi who had taken part in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in.
He later joined a jihadist cell and was responsible for lookout and surveillance operations for the Revolution Brigade and the Hasm terrorist organisation. He made several attempts to infiltrate Sinai in order to join IS-affiliated groups there but failed.
He was, however, able to establish contact with some IS-affiliated groups who instructed him to carry out an attack in the vicinity of the Al-Istiqama Mosque.
Abdallah is one of many members of the Muslim Brotherhood who joined militant wings that the organisation sprouted following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime on 30 June 2013. He is not the first Brotherhood member to try to sign up with the today’s most ruthless extremist terrorist organisation.
The majority of bombings in the Nile Valley were been executed by terrorists who pledged allegiance to the ISIL franchise in Egypt and adopted the tactics and the ruthless violence the Islamic State (IS) promotes.
The most notorious examples of this modus operandi during the past two years include the bombings of St Peter’s Church in Cairo, St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, St George’s Church in Tanta and various security installations in the Western Desert.
The targets are generally the same: security forces and places of worship, including mosques. Abdallah’s attempted attack in Giza was intended to target both, the policemen stationed there and the mosque on Friday, when it fills with worshippers.
Brigadier General Khaled Okasha, a security expert who directs the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Thought and Studies, believes Abdallah was not acting alone but as part of a terrorist cell.
“That he was wearing an explosive belt suggests he was trained and equipped for his mission. In addition, he not only wanted to target an area where security forces were stationed but also to carry out a suicide attack at some point, a pattern that follows that of terrorist operatives in Sinai.”
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi addresses Munich Security Conference, Germany on 16 February, 2019
The suicide attack in Arish occurred on Saturday morning. According to the communiqué issued by Army Spokesman Colonel Tamer Al-Rifaai, at 6am security forces in North Sinai came under attack.
Seven perpetrators were killed and an officer and 14 other soldiers killed or wounded during the exchange of fire. A combing operation was immediately launched to apprehend and eliminate terrorist operatives in the vicinity. IS claimed responsibility for the attack through its media channels.
Experts believe the attack was timed to coincide with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Germany to take part in the Munich Security Conference.
In his address to the conference Al-Sisi said: “Terrorism has become a global phenomenon the mounting dangers of which can destabilise societies. It requires intensive and genuine efforts on all our parts to uproot this odious phenomenon which is the foremost threat to development efforts. We must tighten the siege around groups and organisations that practise terrorism as well as around governments that turn a blind eye to the phenomenon or, in some cases, support it as a means to realise their political ends and their regional ambitions.”
Following his return from Munich President Al-Sisi met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Last Saturday’s attack in North Sinai could also have been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the launch of Comprehensive Operation Sinai (COS) 2018 which military officials say will continue until terrorism is totally eliminated from Egypt.
The attack against the military installation occurred after a range of military operations had delivered debilitating blows against terrorist lairs in Sinai and a series of pre-emptive operations in Arish succeeded in disrupting and apprehending terrorist cells that were preparing to launch attacks in the peninsula.
Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on extremism and terrorism, sees a clear link between the attacks and militant organisations, such as the Popular Resistance Committees and the Revolutionary Retribution, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“These groups have coordinated in five operations since mid-2016, suggesting a rump of Muslim Brotherhood operatives have shifted to IS. Those unable to reach the organisation in Sinai undertake attacks in mainland Egypt that can be attributed to it.”
Gomaa says this helps explain the Mariuotia attack on a tourist bus in December 2018, which clearly showed the operatives’ shift to IS’ more bloodthirsty tactics. He adds that the rate of such attacks is contingent on two factors, the ability of terrorist cells to carry out attacks attributable to IS and the ability of security agencies to pre-empt them.
In a related development Military Case 137 — known in the press as the Sinai Province 4 case — resumed on 19 February in the Tora Courts Complex. The 555 defendants are charged with creating 43 IS-affiliated cells.
Police carry equipment to the site where the body of a suicide bomber lay covered in a sheet behind Al-Azhar Mosque (photo: AFP)
The trial began at the end of January. According to the State Security Prosecutor’s Office, the terrorist crimes perpetrated by the defendants were concentrated in North Sinai.
The groups’ leaders were in continual contact with IS commanders in Iraq and Syria. According to the prosecution, some of the defendants received training in IS camps in Syria and gained field experience in urban guerrilla warfare. Upon their return they began to stage attacks against the Egyptian state and its citizens.
In the course of the investigations it emerged that the hierarchy of Sinai Province is headed by a wali (governor), assisted by three aides responsible for military, administrative and financial affairs.
The organisation has divided North Sinai province into six sectors and its clusters of terrorist cells are divided into branches each consisting of four groups themselves subdivided into subsidiary groups which are variously tasked with surveillance and reconnaissance missions, logistical support, military assault missions and suicide bombings.
Investigations also revealed the locations the organisation used as bases for its terrorist activities. They included a building in the Ameriya district of Alexandria, three farms in Ismailia, a training camp in the Gehad Abu Tabl area of Arish directed by Mohamed Ramadan Eid Al-Tarbani, a training camp in a mountainous area of Manfalout in Assiut, a farm on the border between Menoufiya and Beheira, a farm on the Tor Abu Rudies Road in South Sinai and two flats in the Ard Al-Lewa district of Giza.
General Nagi Shohoud, an advisor at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Ahram Weekly that COS 2018 has succeeded in destroying the terrorist environment in Sinai and preventing its spread elsewhere in Egypt.
“Terrorism is on the wane yet it continues to exist in the current regional and international contexts, as do its sources. It is important to bear in mind that terrorism is not an aim in and of itself but a means towards an end, such as changing the identity of Sinai for example. And though the terrorist organisations that exist at present have a single source, there is a division of labour between them. The attack in Sinai came a day after the failed bomb attack in Giza Square. The motor was the same, even if the parts of the engine that perpetrated the attacks were different.”
“There are plans targeting Egypt that were conceived in Turkey,” says Shohoud. “Their aim is to undermine stability and erode confidence. We can expect a long and protracted battle because terrorism still has regional and international fosterers and funders. This means we must rely, above all, on our Armed Forces and the Egyptian people. They are our real weapon in this battle.”
Shohoud believes security coordination between Egypt and Israel has curbed terrorism along the border but warns against “unscrupulous” Hamas policies towards Sinai, as evidenced by the discovery of more tunnels beneath the Sinai-Gaza border.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The fight continues