On two Fridays about a month apart, Egypt faced two of the worst terrorist attacks in its modern history. The attacks typify the diversifying threats this country is facing and highlight how Egypt is emerging as a new jihadi frontier.
The first attack was carried out in the Western Desert by militants linked to al-Qaeda who previously operated in Libya. At least 16 Egyptian policemen (and perhaps over 50) were killed in the attack, which took place after a botched police raid. The second one, the biggest in modern history, was carried out last Friday, and targeted a Sufi mosque in the desert region of North Sinai, killing more than 300 worshippers after explosions and a shooting spree.
The incidents are part of a multifaceted insurgency facing Egypt. Three main types of insurgents—a reemerging al-Qaeda presence, an existing and resilient Islamic State insurgency, and less organized violence from disillusioned Muslim Brotherhood rebels—utilize varied tactics that the state has simply proven unable to handle.
Al-Qaeda presents itself as the moderate alternative to a brutal Islamic State, especially as the latter group is undergoing an existential crisis mirroring its meteoric rise in 2014. Officials and jihadi sources also point to an al-Qaeda drive to recruit for its Egyptian chapters, especially in countries such as Syria and Libya, and among Egyptian nationals who might be returning after the defeat of the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. A senior jihadi currently based in Syria recently revealed to the authors that al-Qaeda was reaching out to jihadis there to recruit for Egypt and had approached him specifically. In Egypt, as in other countries in the region, the return of experienced jihadis threaten to fuel existing conflicts.
Young Islamists who broke ranks with the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership after the coup in 2013 present a different challenge for Egypt than that of jihadis in al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Those appeal to a less radical demographic, one less nihilistic than jihadis.
The third category, the Islamic State, is arguably more unique to Egypt, as counterintuitive as that may be, given that the organization is crumbling elsewhere and that the regime in Cairo has supposedly tightened its grip on Egyptian society. Understanding this particular threat, as attention is slightly shifting away from the Islamic State, is crucial to fending off a threat to a key Middle Eastern ally.
The Islamic State tailors its message depending on the environment in which it seeks to establish itself. As the group retreats in Iraq and Syria, it is attempting to demonstrate its strength and expand elsewhere. In Egypt and Libya, for example, it cannot rely on its anti-Shia rhetoric to justify its existence as it does in Iraq and Syria. Instead, it seems to have found two enemies in Egypt that could substitute for the kind of clear enemy the group found in Shia in Iraq and Syria: Coptic Christians and Sufis.
In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State destroyed shrines, intimidated Sufi leaders and replaced Sufi imams, but it focused on communities that were known strongholds of Sufi orders (such as the Naqshbandi), and occasionally even allied with them. For Christians, it confiscated homes of families who had fled once the group seized their areas. But it tried to pretend it was complying with Islam’s treatment of Christians as a subordinate minority.
In contrast, the Islamic State has turned Christians in Egypt into a political enemy that can be targeted as a whole. It depicts Copts as a belligerent community that secretly steers the Egyptian government to repress Muslims. In so doing, it relies on preexisting sentiment that views the Coptic church as an anti-Muslim conspiracy. The Islamic State has carried out terrorist attacks against Christian civilians as well as worshipers inside churches. As it tried to build influence in Libya after its rise in 2014, the group appealed to a similar sentiment among Libyan Islamists and jihadis when it executed Egyptian Christians on a beach.
Egyptian Sufi orders also appear to be a perfect enemy for the group, especially in Sinai. The Islamic State has focused on deep-rooted Sufi orders that it deems to be polytheistic. It saves particular ire for the Jariri order, which is based in Sinai with influence in mainland Egypt and runs the mosque that was attacked on Friday. The Islamic State has called the order’s clerics taghout (idolatrous leaders) and noted that the Jariri order is wedded to Egyptian intelligence.
The group, as other jihadis, benefit from the fact that these communities are marginalized and neglected by the central government. Al-Qaeda is still not as visible, but it has reentered the Egyptian scene after previous chapters defected to the Islamic State, and will seek to appeal to demographic a too savage Islamic State cannot attract. Together, these groups present varying threats to the country’s security and social fabric, and will add even more pressure to the poor-performing security forces.
The current wave of attacks associated with these three types of insurgencies are all primarily driven by the terror groups’ struggle for survival, rather than the goal of destroying a particular enemy. This struggle has dictated their shift in tactic and choice of targets as well as a heightened level of aggression directed toward civilians in marginalized areas or minorities across the country in order to show clout.
In the absence of rule of law, those unprotected groups suffer losses, and are left to settle scores themselves with terror groups in a rising conflict outside the army’s control. This is when the alarm bells ring in Egypt, with the concern of moving toward a situation similar to Syria and Iraq. It becomes clear that the exclusive security approach to counter-terrorism or the brutal force that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has called for is not adequate. The protection of these groups and preventing such tragedies starts first by instilling the rule of law. Empowering these threatened groups and giving them their rights and protection by the law and addressing their various needs is a necessary step toward security.