A gunman riding a motorcycle attacked the Coptic Church of Mar Mina in the southern Helwan suburb of Cairo earlier today. Initial casualty reports indicate at least nine people, including a policeman, were killed in the shootout that followed.
According to Reuters, Egypt’s interior ministry says that a jihadist attempted to crash through the security outside of the church “in order to throw an explosive device.” Egyptian officials have also tied the assault to an earlier shooting on a “Christian-owned shop” just three miles or so away. Two people were killed at the store.
Within hours, the Islamic State had claimed responsibility, saying that a “covert unit” had “assaulted a gathering of Christians inside” the church. One of the attackers “attained martyrdom.”
Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the so-called caliphate, subsequently released a video of the supposed “martyr.” The unidentified man, who is masked, reiterates his pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and encourages his comrades in the Sinai. A screen shot from the video can be seen above. The footage is similar to a series of other videos released by Amaq since July 2016. Amaq has repeatedly released scenes of jihadists swearing their fealty to Baghdadi before their day of terror far outside the lands of the so-called caliphate. Such productions are intended to underscore the organization’s responsibility for an operation.
Many of the details in the early accounts of today’s attacks are murky, including the number of jihadists involved.
However, the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility is hardly surprising. The group has repeatedly targeted Coptic Christians in Egypt.
In Dec. 2016, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck the women’s section at the main Coptic church in Cairo, Egypt, killing more than 20 people.
On Apr. 9 (Palm Sunday) of this year, the group’s arm in mainland Egypt struck two more Coptic churches. The first bomb was detonated at Saint George church in Tanta and the second at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Pope Tawadros II, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church, was reportedly in attendance at Saint Mark’s either shortly before or after the jihadists struck. Dozens of additional victims were killed or wounded.
On Apr. 18, jihadists opened fire on policemen at the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a UNESCO-designated world heritage site in the southern Sinai. At least one policeman was killed, but the Islamic State loyalists were forced to flee after they failed to do more damage.
Then, on May 27, the Islamic State’s followers massacred Coptic Christians traveling on a bus in Minya, south of Cairo. The victims were en route to the St. Samuel Coptic Orthodox Monastery when masked gunmen opened fire. At least 28 people were killed.
The self-declared caliphate’s ideologues have ruled that attacks on churches are permissible.
In May, the organization’s Rumiyah magazine dedicated its cover story (“The Ruling on the Belligerent Christians”) to the topic of killing Christian civilians. The author concluded that “targeting these churches with ruin and destruction is a matter that is permitted in the Shari’ah [Islamic law], and it is allowed to use this as a means of attaining closeness to Allah.” Rumiyah’s authors told readers that even the blood of Christian women and children is permissible.
That same issue of Rumiyah contained an interview with an unnamed jihadist who was identified as the “emir” of the group’s “soldiers” in Egypt. This jihadist runs a branch of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization in mainland Egypt that is apparently separate from Wilayah Sinai, or the Sinai “province.” Interestingly, the Islamic State’s “emir” in Egypt conceded that most Egyptians do not approve of the jihadists’ operations targeting churches. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Islamic State leader in Egypt says church bombings aren’t popular.]
But as the attacks earlier today show, the Islamic State will continue to strike Egypt’s Coptic churches, even if such operations are generally unpopular.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.