Cairo: The Next Front in the War Against ISIS?

A sucessful Cairo attack for ISIS would signal a new escalation in the group's war against Egypt.

As the dust settles in the wake of several sophisticated attacks in the Cairo area, the Egyptian government is moving quickly to sweep up terrorists, launching investigations and arrest raids to get to the bottom of the most recent attack in the capital, a car bomb at dawn on July 11 at the Italian Consulate. However, these actions may be too little, too late, jeopardizing the air of stability President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has fought so hard to project.  

Although news articles have hyped up the poor security situation in Cairo for months, insecurity in the capital has fluctuated over the last half-year. In fact, the car bomb, as well as the June 29 assassination of the Egyptian prosecutor general, punctuated a period of relative quiet in Cairo.  Extremist groups operating in the capital aren’t really disappearing—they’re reorganizing and adapting to a security establishment struggling to secure Cairo while continuing to battle jihadists in the Sinai front.  

A year ago, Egypt was settling into al-Sisi’s presidential victory, and while the situation remained unstable in the Sinai Peninsula, Cairo was recovering from a once-massive Muslim Brotherhood protest movement, which had ranged from demonstrations to attacks on security officers. However, the first quarter of 2015 proved volatile, with a renewed uptick in near-daily improvised explosive device (IED) attacks across the country. This continued until April, when the number of militant attacks dramatically dropped and then plateaued. The three-month decline in attacks even begged the question if the capital was perhaps finally becoming safe again, although in this region, safety is usually relative.

However, it is from this period that the Italian Consulate attack emerged, as well as a foiled suicide bombing days later in al-Katameyah, 14 kilometers southeast of central Cairo, the assassination of the prosecutor general, a failed car bomb attack in Six October City the next day, and even a failed suicide bombing at the tourist hotspot of Luxor in June, albeit south of the capital. Militants are turning their eyes once again toward Cairo, shifting from small-scale IED attacks toward a more sophisticated modus operandi, namely car and suicide bombs on government, security, tourist, and Western targets.

The method of these incidents would intuitively link all four to Wilayat Sinai [Sinai Province], an Islamic State (IS) affiliate operating out of the restive Sinai. Only one of the attacks, however, was claimed by the group—the al-Katameyah incident. Most of these attacks remain unclaimed, while the most notable incident, in the heart of Cairo at the Italian Consulate, was claimed by IS via a puzzling media release lacking the normal annotation of “Wilayat Sinai” in the group’s logo, instead captioned only by the word “Masr” [Egypt].

These attacks suggest that hardcore militants, likely linked with IS, are attempting to expand their operational presence beyond the Sinai and into mainland Egypt. This would further explain the lack of a “Wilayat Sinai” brand in the claim, suggesting that the attacks may have been executed by a local cell of IS supporters attempting to gain recognition by the group’s central organization.  

While the Islamic State’s desire to expand beyond the desert peninsula is obvious, until this point, Wilayat Sinai has had limited success in doing so. In this context, the group’s operations in mainland Egypt have been limited; they include reports that a suspected Wilayat Sinai member was killed while wearing an explosive belt outside a checkpoint in the Dakahlia Governorate in January, a raid against a Wilayat Sinai cell in the Sharqiya Governorate in December, and an August 2014 killing of an American energy company employee in Egypt’s western desert. A successful attack in Cairo would thus signal a major step forward for the group.

As a result, IS militants or supporters are likely to continue attempting to expand to Cairo and the Egyptian heartland over the coming weeks and months, conducting further sophisticated efforts to attack high-value targets. With the three-month state of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula just extended on July 26, the military may soon find itself fighting a war on two fronts, with jihadists likely to take advantage of the military’s overextension in the Sinai to launch attacks further west.

In the meantime, IS’s capabilities in Egypt only continue to grow. As Egypt geared up for the August 6 inauguration of the “New Suez Canal”, critical for the Egyptian economy and al-Sisi’s legitimacy, Wilayat Sinai used the opportunity to launch a rocket at a naval vessel off the coast of Rafah, signaling its capabilities to target shipping interests in the area.

Is there a Wilayat Cairo? Not yet, and militants will likely need to carry out more successful attacks before that happens, and not just in the quiet dawn hours. But, Cairo’s grace period may soon be over.

Roshanna Lawrence is the Associate Director of Intelligence—Middle East and North Africa at MAX Security Solutions, a geo-political and security risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.  

Image: Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim