NCI explosion: Egypt's black Sunday

Ahmed Morsy , Thursday 8 Aug 2019

The blast that shook central Cairo on Sunday, killing 22 and injuring 70, leaves many unanswered questions in its wake

Black Sunday

In a statement on Monday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi extended his condolences to the families of victims and branded the explosion that killed and maimed so many at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) a "cowardly terrorist incident."

Immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s first statement addressing the explosion, in which the blast was blamed on a car collision, speculation swirled as to whether such a powerful explosion could have been the result of a car accident. Soon afterwards the Interior Ministry clarified its earlier statement, saying one of the cars involved in the collision was “carrying explosives prepared for use in a terrorist attack”.

The later statement also said initial examinations showed the blast occurred when the explosive-laden vehicle collided with three vehicles while driving the wrong way down the street in front of the NCI, and that the vehicle implicated in the explosion had been reported stolen months before in Menoufiya.

“Initial investigations indicate that the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s militant group Hasm was behind the preparation of the car which it planned to use in a terrorist operation,” said the Interior Ministry statement.

Security experts agree the site of the explosion, the NCI, was not the intended target.

Major General Fouad Allam, former head of the National Security Apparatus, says most likely the explosives were being moved to another location for a pre-planned attack.

Brigadier General Khaled Okasha, director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), agrees.  

“I suspect the driver of the car noticed enhanced security measures in Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street. He was driving a stolen car, laden with explosives, and in his panic tried to avoid the tightened security by driving the wrong way down the Nile Corniche,” Okasha told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Okasha speculates the terrorist operation for which the explosives were originally destined would have taken place in the next few hours or days. “Hasm would not venture to transfer this quantity of explosives unless the operation was going to be conducted within a few hours or days,” he says.

Eid Al-Adha, one of the two most important religious holidays in the Islamic calendar, falls on Sunday, and in recent years such holidays in Egypt have all too often been accompanied by terrorist acts.

The number of fatalities, and the damage caused to the NCI, indicates a large quantity of explosives. Allam estimates that around 300kg must have been needed to cause such a large blast.

“It is a cause of great concern that such a large quantity of explosive material could reach the centre of Cairo, and in a stolen car, without being detected,” he says.

“We need to overhaul the ways in which stolen vehicles are traced and identified, even when their colour and plates have been changed.”

The use of a bomb-laden car, warns Okasha, suggests “Hasm is developing its capabilities.”

The group, he says — Hasm essentially operates as the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed wing — appears to be cloning Islamic State (IS) operations.

“An alliance between terrorist groups has grown steadily apparent. There has been a degree of openness between terrorist groups in recent years. It is possible that IS elements have trained Hasm operatives and what we are seeing is a transfer of expertise.”

Since 2013 Egypt has been fighting an insurgency led by IS, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai. Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed, the vast majority in North Sinai. Though Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has been at the forefront of militant groups launching attacks against security targets smaller militant groups — most notably Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra — emerged in 2016, carrying out terrorist operations in Cairo and Giza governorates.

Hasm claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist acts in their first two years of existence, and military experts were unanimous in concluding the group was an offshoot of the Brotherhood. In February 2017 the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters designated Hasm a terrorist group.

Their first major operation, the failed assassination attempt on former mufti Ali Gomaa, was in August 2016. A second failed assassination, this time on the prosecutor-general’s deputy Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, was staged in October of the same year.

Abdel-Aziz’s convoy was driving in New Cairo when a car bomb exploded near the motorcade. There were no injuries. In the attempt on Gomaa’s life, the cleric escaped unharmed when four masked gunmen exchanged fire with his bodyguards while he was on his way to Al-Fadel Mosque, 50 metres from his home.

On Monday Hasm denied any links to the explosion and in a statement it ironically extended its “sincere condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims”.

Okasha believes Hasm’s denial of responsibility is little more than a public relations exercise. Aware of the public outrage that followed the deadly explosion in which many of the NCI’s patients were caught up, the group opted to wash its hands of any involvement, in public at least.

“The bombing caused great pain among the public, and I think Hasm decided it was better to distance itself from any involvement in such a barbaric act,” says Okasha.

Popular TV host Amr Adib has managed to raise LE71 million to renovate the NCI during his talk show on MBC Masr TV. Donors have included public figures such as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who donated LE50 million.

Other top donors include Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who donated LE1 million, businessman and construction tycoon Hisham Talaat Mustafa, who donated LE10 million, as well as companies and groups like Garhi Steel, which donated LE3 million.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Black Sunday 

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