Islamic State (IS) militants on November 2 opened fire on Christians returning from a Coptic baptism ceremony in central Egypt, killing seven people and wounding 19 others. The onslaught, which resembled a May 2017 IS attack near the same spot that left 28 Christians dead, raises questions about the effectiveness of Egypt’s ongoing comprehensive military campaign against terrorism.
In a statement from its Amaq news agency, IS claimed responsibility for the ambush, which targeted buses carrying Christians from the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in Minya province. The group said that the operation came as revenge for “our chaste sisters,” a possible reference to six women linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) whom Cairo arrested a day before the attack. The women included human rights lawyer Hoda Abdelmoniem and Aisha al-Shater, the daughter of senior MB leader Khairat al-Shater.
While the nature and extent of ties between the MB and IS in Egypt are subject to debate, MB-affiliated websites, including the Islamist group’s outlawed political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, suggested that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had orchestrated the assault – an implausible claim often advanced by MB members and supporters after major attacks on Christians.
In the wake of the violence, Egyptian security forces reported killing 19 Islamist militants believed to be linked to the attack. Meanwhile, Sisi pledged to continue the fight against terrorism. He also reiterated the need to reform Egypt’s religious discourse, and noted that the 2016 law regulating church building has contributed to legalizing 340 churches that had been built without official permits.
Despite official government promises to protect Christians, Copts face growing discrimination and violence, including attacks on churches, homes, and businesses. Christians often complain that police are soft on Islamists, and Church officials have repeatedly called for enforcing the law while opposing “reconciliation sessions” – the method authorities have favored to resolve disputes between Christians and Muslims.
The shooting in Minya province is the latest in a string of IS attacks on Copts, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of roughly 100 million. In December 2017, an IS gunman killed 11 people at a Coptic church in Helwan, near Cairo. In April 2017, IS bombed churches on Palm Sunday in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta, killing 44. In December 2016, IS bombed Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25.
The Trump administration has condemned the latest attack and reaffirmed its support for Egypt’s efforts to “combat terrorism and violence against religious communities.” To help Cairo overhaul its counterterrorism strategy, Washington should encourage the government to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism by combating the radical Islamist ideas that drive it. The United States should work with Egypt to advance policies that reform educational curricula, roll back policies discriminating against Copts and other religious communities, and foster the rule of law.