Bombings in Egypt Signal Expanding Militant Capabilities

4 MINS READJan 24, 2014 | 19:51 GMT
Egyptian security forces and civilians near the site of a car bombing at a police station in Cairo on Jan. 24.
(AHMED GAMEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Four explosive devices detonated in and around Cairo on Jan. 24. The first of these, a large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device placed in front of the Cairo Security Directorate that killed four and injured 50, was the most significant. Any coordination among the four bombings would represent an increase in tactical sophistication among the militant groups behind the attacks. Such attacks are likely to increase in tempo and destructiveness, and Cairo will struggle to contain the Salafist-jihadist threat.

The bombings occurred on the eve of the third anniversary of the start of the uprising that led to the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak and hours after a Police Day celebration recognizing the Egyptian military. 

Jan. 24 Bombings in Cairo, Egypt

Jan. 24 Bombings in Cairo, Egypt

The Security Directorate explosion in particular signifies a significant escalation in militant capabilities. The device was located in a car placed 5 meters (about 16 feet) from the outside gates of the security headquarters, according to an Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman. The powerful device caused substantial damage to the building's facade and to surrounding structures, including the Islamic Museum. Due to concrete barriers surrounding the Security Directorate, the device could not be parked closer, preventing greater damage to the headquarters. Security camera footage from the museum showed the streets were nearly deserted and that there was very little activity at the headquarters at the time of the attack, limiting the death toll.

The second device was rudimentary by comparison; it detonated hours later near a police vehicle parked by a metro station in Giza, which borders Cairo, resulting one death. The third bombing took place near a police station in the Talbiya district of Giza near the pyramids outside Cairo, but caused no injuries. The fourth bombing also occurred in Giza, this time in the Haram district near a movie theater, killing one person and wounding seven. Though the three subsequent bombings were much smaller and far less destructive than the first, they still are important given that they occurred within hours of each other and in close proximity, suggesting possible coordination.

In the only claim of responsibility for any of the attacks, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis said it carried out the Security Directorate bombing. The group has been active in Egypt for several years, conducting multiple bombings and attacks in the Sinai Peninsula beginning in 2011. Prior to former President Mohammed Morsi's ouster, the group primarily targeted Israel or Israeli interests on the Sinai Peninsula. Like many Salafist-jihadist groups in the country, the group began to target Egyptian security forces after the 2013 removal of Morsi. In September of that year, it targeted the Egyptian interior minister with an improvised explosive device in a failed assassination attempt in Cairo. Later, it carried out a bombing at the intelligence directorate headquarters in Islamiya in October and a bombing at a police compound in Mansoura in December. The most recent attack appears to be part of the same bombing campaign. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is the only Egyptian militant group that has demonstrated the intent, capability and resources to conduct large-scale destructive attacks on the Egyptian mainland.

Although large-scale attacks are more rare, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood motivated fledgling groups of jihadists and radicalized Islamists to act on the mainland. These groups increasingly are able to act on this desire, though they presently lack the expertise and access to materials more hardened jihadist groups in Sinai possess. 

To date, these attacks have involved small explosive devices and small arms, and have not produced high death tolls, casualties or significant structural damage. It is likely that some of these individuals will link up with more experienced groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or perfect their own tradecraft over time to produce larger and more destructive attacks. Militants in Egypt are also aided by the huge quantities of unsecured ordnance and explosives in neighboring Libya.

At this time, militants in Egypt cannot derail the election set for March that is likely to see Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi win the presidency. But despite its probable victory in this election cycle, Egypt's military and security forces will struggle against an expanding and increasingly sophisticated jihadist insurgency spreading in mainland Egypt. The frequency and size of the attacks probably will steadily increase. Should the groups begin to strike with more coordination, the already tenuous state of security in Egypt will decline even further.

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