Targeting Egypt’s Christians is a cold and calculated strategy for the group. ISIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling. Several explosions have rocked Cairo and the Delta since 2013, carried out by both ISIS and its precursor group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which pledged its allegiance to Raqqa in 2014. Yet despite this, Islamic State efforts had before now largely floundered in mainland Egypt—where nearly 97 percent of the population resides—due in part to the strength of the central government, the amateur nature of Islamic State assets, and perhaps most importantly, the relative cohesiveness of Egyptian society. The group has fared much better in the remote North Sinai, where it has killed over a thousand government troops in recent years, but the area is simply too far away from Cairo to constitute an existential threat to the government.
And so, although the Palm Sunday attacks were hardly the first time Egypt’s Christians were targeted by jihadis, Islamists, or even ordinary Muslim mobs, they represent a sea change in the nature of the threat Egypt’s Christians now face, with far-reaching implications for the country as a whole.
ISIS has taken the radical step of positing that Christians are to Egypt what the Shia are to Iraq, embracing the position that they can be killed indiscriminately and for no reason other than for what they believe. Since the December 2016 Cairo church bombing, the group’s supporters online have been forcefully pushing this notion, claiming that the Christians of Egypt were first and foremost polytheists and that due to the “treachery” they had showed, by presumably “allying” with the West and the Egyptian government, they had to be killed.
Egyptian ISIS supporters launched an online “Campaign to Surveil Egypt’s Apostates” in order to crowdsource targeting information; they produced crudely made “wanted dead” posters to urge supporters to take action. A glimpse of the possible implications was on display last February, when hundreds of Christians in North Sinai fled their homes in panic after seven Christians were brutally murdered by IS fighters.
The strategy is in reality not the result of an ideological revision inside ISIS. And its implementation has serious repercussions for Egypt’s security, and if successful, for regional stability. For years members of the group, and jihadis in general, have struggled with the important question of why jihad has failed in mainland Egypt. The question is fundamental for the group not only because of Egypt’s size, but also because it tests whether the jihadi project can succeed in countries not already torn by civil war or hopelessly destabilized.
One 2014 jihadi “study” by an ISIS ideologue, Abu Mawdud al-Harmasy, is instructive. Titled “The Secret of The Egyptian Enigma,” the author first laments that Egyptian Muslims are like cattle for not understanding “the reality of the struggle,” before offering his “keys for jihadi success.” Among them is “sectarian killing of Christians” in order to inflame certain rural areas, and “most importantly targeting directly every Christian without exceptions.” He goes on to say that inflaming sectarian strife will be the key to “revealing the reality of the conflict and [inciting] the latent feelings of the Muslims towards their [Christian] creed;” to him, only after targeting minorities happened in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen did jihad take hold in those places. The author concludes with this exhortation: “Do not leave any infidel Christian in Egypt until you threatened their life.” In recent months in Egypt ISIS has also begun to take a similar tone toward Sufis, who constitute a large share of Muslims in Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere, decapitating two Sufi clerics in Sinai and forcing others to “repent.”