New Islamic State group call to violence sparks panic among Copts
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An IS group video targeting Coptic Christians, the discovery of a shoulder-fired missile launcher near Cairo airport and recent killings have raised fears of widening terrorist activity in Egypt and resulted in Sinai Copts fleeing their homes.
The Islamic State group released a video last Sunday declaring it would specifically target Christians in Egypt.
The recording featured the final statement of a man they said was responsible for the December 13 suicide bombing of Egypt’s main Coptic Christian Cathedral in which nearly 30 people mostly women and children were killed. Calling Copts their “favourite prey,” the video called on IS group sympathisers to attack them on sight, and pledged to bring the fight to the streets of Cairo.
The next day, a man posted a video on Facebook of a shoulder-fired missile launcher he said he found in a garbage dump near Cairo International Airport while on his way to work. If functional, the weapon has the capacity to bring down a commercial aircraft.
And in the last four days, three Christians have been brutally murdered in Sinai, an Islamic State group stronghold that has been a battleground between the Egyptian military and Islamic militants since 2011. On Wednesday, the bodies of a father and son were found in Sinai’s capital city Al-Arish, the father’s body riddled with bullets and the son’s body with signs of being burned alive. The following day, Islamist militants stormed the home of a Coptic plumber and shot him to death in front of his wife and children.
The spate of killings at least six Coptic Christians have been murdered in Sinai in the past month set off a wave of panic that prompted hundreds of Copts to flee the area out of fear that they could be next.
Copts, Egypt’s orthodox Christians, make up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
IS Group expansion
The IS group video was different from previous ones in that it was labeled “Islamic State in Egypt,” as opposed to bearing the “Sinai Provence” logo that the group usually uses, highlighting the expansion of their operations into the Egyptian heartland. In addition to claiming the attack on the cathedral in Cairo, in late January the group posted online the pictures, names, and addresses of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police officers and urged their followers to hunt them down and kill them. Some of those on the list were located outside of Sinai.
“ISIS [the IS group] is constantly trying to plant its foot on the Egyptian mainland,” said Mokhtar Awad, research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
With its promise to take the fight to Cairo, the video was restating a tactic already in effect and did not mark a significant shift. The IS group has claimed responsibility for seven attacks in Cairo in 2016, and four in 2015, Reuters reported.
“ISIS is not just a Sinai issue,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute. As fighters return from Iraq, Libya and Syria, bringing with them know-how from the battle field, they may become active at home.
Nor is targeting Christians, by itself, new. The Coptic Pope raised the ire of Islamists in Egypt when he appeared on stage next to then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the announcement that Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, had been deposed. In the days following, scores of churches throughout the country were vandalised and burned.
More significantly, it marked Christians throughout Egypt as legitimate targets for anyone with the means to attack them.
“They’re trying to do this France-like, Europe-like activation of lone-wolf cells to create havoc,” Awad said, referring to the call to arms that IS group chief strategist Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani issued to his followers last May saying that, if they couldn’t make it to Syria to fight, they could be just as useful to the movement by striking in Europe and the US.
An alarming discovery
It was against this backdrop that the mysterious saga of the SA-7 anti-aircraft missile launcher discovered within shooting range of the Cairo airport unfolded. A man called the police after finding the device lying in a trash heap less than a mile from the runway, and made a video of them discussing what to do with it, which he posted on Facebook. The video made the rounds on social media, included being tweeted by Awad.
Almost as quickly, the veracity of the account came under fire. A pro-government website reported finding the same video online, and said it dated back to 2011. The military issued an order calling for the original Facebook post to be deleted. And Awad claimed he was attacked by pro-government twitter trolls leading to the perception that the find was significant enough for the government to want to hush it up, and thus piquing the interest of some very skilled citizen journalists.
One of those was Christiaan Triebart, a researcher with the open-source journalism site Bellingcat. He used the buildings in the background of the video to geo-locate the place where the video was taken. He then found a satellite image from August 2016 in which a building that is completed in the video was still under construction, meaning the video had to have been shot in the previous six months.
Intelligence site IHS Jane's lends further credibility to the claim that the video is more recent than 2011 by pointing out that the improvised battery pack shown in the video were not developed until 2012 or 2013.
The clear effort by the Egyptian authorities to discredit the find raises suspicions, said Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, but without knowing how and why the weapon got there and even if it was functional it’s difficult to draw conclusions. Was it left there for someone to pick up and use to shoot down a plane, or had it simply been discarded because it no longer worked? After the breakup of Libya, such weapons were smuggled out of the country in large numbers. They are notoriously unreliable.
In terms of its effect on the already-tense Egyptian populace, though, the weapon’s functionality scarcely matters. In the current context of government information blackouts, IS group videos and terror attacks, finding a missile launcher so close to the airport certainly feeds public fear, Nasr said.
That kind of insecurity is what the IS group hopes to fuel in Egypt as it tries to destabilize the country by increasing tensions between different societal factions, most notably Christians and Islamists.
“The church bombing was a calculated step toward inciting sectarian violence in Egypt,” Awad said. “They are trying to up the ante and create as much violence and anarchy as they can.”
Their efforts seem to be working, if not yet on the mainland then certainly in Sinai.
“The reality on the ground has changed,” said Mina Thabet, a researcher with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who is currently in Ismailia to help those arriving from Sinai. He said as many as 50 families arrived yesterday and still more are coming today.
Some Christians have received death threats on their phones, others say that kill lists are being circulated among Islamist militants.
“ISIS is now following a strategy of targeting individuals,” Thabet said.