When a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Cairo church a week ago, it marked a bloody escalation by Egypt’s jihadi militants – raising fears of attacks on civilians in the country’s capital.
A stepped-up campaign by militants linked to the Islamic State group would be a heavy blow to a country trying to rebuild a wrecked economy and revive a vital tourism industry. The prospect is already spreading terror among Egypt’s Christians, who could be a main target.
In fact, the militants may use Christians in an attempt to inflame sectarian divisions in Muslim-majority Egypt, following the strategy of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. By targeting the minority community, the group may be betting it can sow chaos and undermine the government of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi while avoiding indiscriminate bombings that kill Muslims and bring an even more furious public backlash.
Attacks on civilians would be a frightening change for Egypt. Despite continued political unrest since 2011, Cairo and Egypt’s other cities along the Nile Valley have largely been spared such mass mayhem, even as Iraq, Syria and neighbouring Libya have collapsed into chaos.
Extremists linked to the Islamic State group have been waging an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula in brutal fighting with soldiers and security forces. In Cairo they have carried out small-scale attacks on policemen and soldiers, as well as assassinations of officials, but rarely mass bombings.
In the past two years, security agencies succeeded in breaking up multiple militant cells outside of Sinai, aiming to keep the insurgency bottled up in the peninsula. Northern Sinai is a hotbed of militancy with plentiful weaponry. Last year the militants are believed to have smuggled a bomb onto a Russian jet leaving the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, downing it in an attack that has devastated tourism there.
Last Sunday’s suicide bomber hit a church linked to the main cathedral of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church, ripping through a crowd of mainly women worshippers, killing at least 26 and wounding dozens more. It was the deadliest such attack on Christians in years.