CAIRO — Egypt has stepped up security, hunting down and killing 40 alleged terrorists they blame for one of two deadly explosions apparently timed to disrupt the Coptic Christmas season.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry confirmed in a statement that bomb squad member Maj. Mostafa Obeid was killed while trying to defuse an explosive device placed in a bag near the Church of the Virgin Mary and St Mercurius in Nasr City east of Cairo. Two other police officers were wounded in the attack Jan. 5, two days before the Orthodox Christmas.
The device was one of four planted around the church. Three others were disarmed without incident.
That attack came a little more than a week after a makeshift roadside bomb exploded Dec. 28 near a tour bus carrying 14 Vietnamese tourists in the Mariutiya neighborhood of Giza. Three tourists and their Egyptian guide were killed, and 10 others on the bus were injured.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but the next day the Egyptian Interior Ministry announced its security forces raided three alleged hideouts in the governorates of Giza and North Sinai. The statement said 40 terror suspects were killed, including 30 in Giza.
Security forces seized large quantities of weapons and explosives, saying the alleged terrorists had probably been planning more attacks on security centers and Christian houses of worship. Copts have been targeted in past years during their holiday season.
Political analyst Mohammed Hamed described the two attacks as a major blow to Egypt’s security forces. He lamented to Al-Monitor that the attacks have also harmed tourism.
However, Hamed questioned the Interior Ministry’s operation the day after the bus attack in Giza. “It can’t be verified that those who were killed were behind the attack,” he said, criticizing security forces for killing suspects without ascertaining the extent of their involvement in the attack.
He pointed out the difficulty of determining the identity and exact number of the slain suspects. “The only source of information is the statement of the Ministry of the Interior amid … wide-ranging and prolonged control by the Egyptian regime on the press and the media,” he said. “The fact that the security forces took revenge the next day, right after the attack, can’t fool even the most naïve of people. Many observers of public affairs seem unconvinced.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly followed up on the incident with Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Tawfiq and Giza Governor Maj. Gen. Ahmed Rashid. Hours after the bus attack, Madbouly visited the wounded in the hospital.
According to Maj. Gen. Hamdi Bakhit, a member of the Egyptian Parliament’s Committee on Defense and National Security, the timing of the two attacks carried several messages.
“Terrorists wanted to show that tourism in Egypt is risky throughout the country amid a state of insecurity, especially during the Coptic Christmas season. The perpetrators sought to strike tourism, undermine public security and tarnish the reputation of the Egyptian security forces. But these attacks failed to shake the resolve and determination of the security forces. On the contrary, our forces are now more adamant than ever about uprooting terrorism,” Bakhit told Al-Monitor.
“The Egyptian security forces have dealt a heavy blow to the terrorists, killing 40 terrorists just a day after the tour bus attack. This is a major success.” He explained that Egyptian security forces have adopted the strategy of pursuing terrorists immediately following any attack, in addition to making pre-emptive strikes to thwart terrorists’ plans.
Bakhit recalled the November 2017 deadly attack claimed by the Islamic State on St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in Minya that claimed the lives of eight Copts. Just two days after that attack, the Interior Ministry said security forces pursued the suspects into the Minya province desert and killed 19 of them.
Samir Ghattas, head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, said the perpetrators of the two recent attacks used surprise and deception to trick security forces. “The data recently showed that the activity of terrorist groups in many strategic areas was receding, especially in Sinai,” he explained. “Terrorists this time used makeshift bombs and improvised explosive devices to easily target field locations within several ranges.”
He pointed out that the Egypt’s Sinai 2018 operation, which began in February, is the largest anti-terrorism operation in Egypt. “This operation doesn’t only concern Sinai, it includes all the strategic axes across the Arab Republic of Egypt,” he said, stressing that the Mariutiya attack has not undermined the morale of security forces.
“The state’s response was very fast in the recent attacks,” Ghattas said. “Security and defense strategies are expected to witness major changes along with more stringent security measures at all levels. If it weren’t for the police officer who defused the bomb in Nasr city, there would have been a large number of casualties among civilians and great material damage.”