The twin bomb blasts that tore through two Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday marked the latest episode in the Islamic State militant group’s (ISIS) violent campaign against the country’s Coptic minority.
The attacks on a church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta and a cathedral in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria came as churches were packed with worshippers marking the beginning of the Easter week.
In Tanta at least 27 people were killed and 78 injured as the first bomb exploded inside St George's Church. Hours later a second bomber detonated an explosive device as he rushed towards St Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria, killing at least 17 and wounding 48.
At least 44 died in the two separate bombings, the worst attack on Egypt’s Copts in decades. In the aftermath of the explosions, ISIS’ Egyptian affiliate—known as Sinai Province—claimed responsibility for the attacks, naming the bombers via its Amaq news agency.
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In the wake of the attacks, many in Egypt’s Coptic community have remained defiant,saying they will not flee their communities.
Marcos, an Egyptian monk from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, who declined to provide his last name for security reasons, told Newsweek on April 10 that Coptic Christians have always stayed in the country despite attacks.
“No matter what happened in Egypt, we never left our land, we never left our home,” he said. “We were sure then that we will stay, and we are sure now that we will stay. Nothing will force us to leave.”
Forensics personnel inspect the site of an explosion that took place at a Coptic church on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017. ISIS' Sinai Province has taken responsibility for the attackMOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS
The origins of ISIS in Egypt
The forerunner to the Islamic State’s Sinai Province was Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM), which first emerged in 2011 when it claimed responsibility for a cross border attack launched from the Sinai on Israel.
According to the U.S.’ counter terrorism guide, a government directory of listed terror groups, ABM’s primary goal was the “destruction of Israel, the establishment of an Islamic Emirate and the implementation of Sharia in the Sinai Peninsula.” Jack Kennedy, a senior analyst at IHS Markit, tells Newsweek ABM grew out of militant Bedouin tribes operating in the Sinai, monopolizing smuggling networks, most likely over the Egyptian frontier into Gaza.
“It’s very likely that most of the founding members of the group, as a cohesive Salafi jihadist group, met and were radicalized in Egypt’s prisons before January 2011,” he says.
In Egyptian army soldier looks on from his postion at a checkpoint in Al Arish city, the troubled northern part of the Sinai peninsula, July 8, 2015. The area has been plagued by ISIS violence as the group seeks to create a separatist emirate in the peninsulaSTRINGER/REUTERS
Pledging allegiance to ISIS
By 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was ousted as leader, the group had already pivoted away from attacks on Israel to targeting the Egyptian security forces. The shift resulted in a spike in Egyptian troop casualties.
In November 2014, ABM pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and became known as Sinai Province.
The government of Egyptian President and former General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has imposed a widespread media blackout on the Islamist insurgency. However, Sinai Province made headlines internationally following the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268in October 2015. The crash resulted in the deaths of 224 mostly Russian tourists.
The remains of a Russian airliner which crashed is seen in central Sinai near El Arish city, north Egypt, October 31, 2015. The Airbus A321, operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia under the brand name Metrojet, carrying 224 passengers crashed into a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai peninsula on Saturday shortly after losing radar contact near cruising altitude, killing all aboard. The ISIS branch Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attackSTRINGER/REUTERS
Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the blast through its leader, Abu Osama al-Masri, according to contemporary media reports. Sinai Province was also able to use an extensive ISIS propaganda network to spread its message when a picture of the bomb appeared in the jihadis’ propaganda magazine Dabiq.
Targeting Christians and stoking sectarian tension
In recent months Sinai Province has stoked sectarian tensions by increasingly targeting civilians and religious minorities. In December, the group bombed a chapel attached to Cairo's St Mark's Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority, killing 28 people.
According to Reuters since January 200 families from the Coptic minority have fled their homes in the Sinai. The exodus followed a series of brutal attacks when a list of Christians in the peninsula and an incitement to kill them was circulated by ISIS. Copts comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million people, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.
“Focusing on targeting Christians is most likely a strategic decision on behalf of their leadership to create the situation of real sectarian conflict in Egypt,” Kennedy explains. “With the deployment of military forces to supplement the police and the re-imposition of a state of emergency, the idea would be to provoke sustained protest from Christians.”
Sinai Province has not only looked to divide between Egypt’s majority Muslim and Christian communities. On March 29 the group decapitated two elderly men accused of practicing witchcraft and apostasy, posting a video of the execution on social media. The language used in the video indicates the two men were most likely executed for their adherence to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam
(c) 2017 Newsweek