August 25, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State in Cairo
• The Islamic State, which has become lethally active in the relatively remote Sinai, has claimed responsibility for a large car bomb against a government security building in a northern Cairo suburb on August 20
• This comes on the heels of the reported mid-August beheading of a Croatian hostage reportedly taken off the street in Cairo and effectively traded to the Islamic State
• Egypt has a long history with terrorism, and a long history of government overreaction that provides short-term terrorism relief with long-term negative terror trends
• It remains to be seen how much of a sustained presence the group can maintain in Cairo—a far less permissive environment than the Sinai.
The Islamic State’s branch in Egypt has found success in the Sinai, attacking government forces with a lethal regularity. Now there are indications that the group is making a serious push to operate with similar regularity in the capital Cairo, where the group’s attacks would have far greater repercussions. The citizens of Cairo have a resilience to terrorism, which the country has battled for more than a generation, but current social and political stressors will test that resilience if the Islamic State can continue to attack.
On August 20, a large car bomb badly damaged a state security building in a northern suburb of Cairo, injuring 29 people. The size of the car bomb suggests the Islamic State has access to explosives and the sanctuary needed to construct and then deploy a bomb—a bad combination of intention and capability. On August 24, a bomb went off next to a bus traveling in the northern district of Baheira, approximately 260 kilometers north of Cairo, killing three police officers and injuring 33 others. On July 11, the Islamic State attacked the Italian consulate in the middle of Cairo, killing one person. The rash of car bombings will likely continue in the near-term as the Islamic State appears determined to operate in the capital.
The kidnapping and apparent murder of Tomislav Salopek, a Croatian hostage, is a tragic indication that the targeting of foreigners in Egypt has also found its way to Cairo. Salopek, an engineer working in Egypt, was reportedly kidnapped off the street in Cairo by an unknown gang, but then ‘traded’ to the Islamic State, who will always have a need for foreign hostages. The audio message that followed the barbaric image of what appears to be the decapitated body of the hostage said the execution was proof that both the Egyptian and Croatian governments had abandoned the hostage to his cruel fate. The earlier unmeetable demand that ‘all Muslim women’ be released from Egyptian jail is a sign the victim was never going to be released. The economy of Egypt depends heavily on foreign workers and tourism, and has already suffered from the years of social unrest. The situation, while already not good, can always be made worse if there are more high-profile attacks or kidnappings of foreigners.
The Egyptian government has made fighting terrorism its main priority, which says something given how many challenges the country faces and will face for the foreseeable future. The issue with the current government’s approach to countering terrorism is the same as with that of the previous government: temporary emergency measures have a nasty habit of slipping into anti-democratic permanence. Without a parliament, the Sisi government is both legislature and executive—a dual role than might streamline efforts to fight the Islamic State, but also works to suppress a credible and incredulous press, as well as political activists and parties that oppose current policies.
Egypt’s revolution and subsequent counter-revolution did not bring extremism to Egypt. Since the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981, the country has witnessed spasms of terrorism, as various groups rise up, attack, and then are violently crushed by the government response. Egypt is not alone in this cycle; most countries struggle with this. Yet Egypt is among a handful of countries in which the demographics and economics combine with legacy and new extremist groups to make sustained positive change so difficult to achieve. The government has to respond forcefully yet sensibly, as the problem will likely increase and persist for the near-term.
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