Twenty-six Egyptian Christians were killed by unidentified gunmen in central Egypt on Friday, Egyptian state media reports. The Christians, who belong to the Coptic Church, were attacked while traveling to the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor. At least 25 others were wounded.
An Egyptian official told The New York Times that children were among those killed.
“We are having a very hard time reaching the monastery because it is in the desert. It’s very confusing. But we know that children were killed,” the official told The Times.
Egyptian Copts make up about 10 percent of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation. Coptic Christianity is a branch of Orthodox Christianity with adherents throughout North Africa. The vast majority of Copts live in Egypt. They are a frequent target of Sunni supremacist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Some of the violence is ideologically driven, and Sunni supremacist groups tend to purge non-Sunnis from any territory they try to conquer. But the attacks on Egypt’s Christians are also a replication of terrorist tactics in other countries as well, especially Iraq.
From 2003-06, al-Qaeda in Iraq continuously targeted Iraqi Shi’a Muslims in bomb attacks and shootings in an attempt to foment a sectarian civil war.
“ISIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling,” writes George Washington University Fellow Mokhtar Awad in The Atlantic. By proving the government is unable to protect its religious minorities, ISIS believes it will undermine confidence in the government and lead to a collapse of its authority.
This is a variation on the urban guerrilla strategy of Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist who in 1969 wrote the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, an insurgent’s guide to sparking a revolution in authoritarian countries. Marighella detailed ways outnumbered and outgunned insurgent groups could force governments to overreact to terrorism, cracking down ever harder on their own citizens. After repeated cycles of attacks and crackdowns, citizens would become alienated from their governments and be more like to support and join the insurgents.
As Margihella writes, once governments enter this cycle, “The people refuse to collaborate with the government, and the general sentiment is that this government is unjust, incapable of solving problems, and that it resorts simply to the physical liquidation of its opponents.”
In Iraq, al-Qaeda hoped to provoke a sectarian civil war between the country’s Shi’a and Sunnis, despite the reality that Iraq had a long history of mixed marriages and neighborhoods. By relentlessly killing Shi’a, al-Qaeda provoked retaliation from Shi’a militias, which the United States occupation authorities could not police effectively. Mostly famously, al-Qaeda bombed a major Shi’a holy site in Samarra in 2006, sparking a violent period of fighting between Shi’a and Sunni. This, in turn, was meant to force Sunnis to look to al-Qaeda for protection.
It backfired in Iraq. Instead of convincing Sunni tribes to join al-Qaeda, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other cities convinced Sunnis they were on the verge of annihilation. When the United States famously launched its 2007 Surge, Sunni tribes were all too happy to join with their former American adversaries to wipe out al-Qaeda.
That hasn’t stopped them from trying the same ploy again.
ISIS first emerged in Egypt in 2014, when a local Sunni supremacist group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Defenders of Jerusalem”), pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. This came shortly after the overthrow of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, who was also a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the ensuring army-led crackdown, thousands of Muslim Brothers were killed, arrested, or forced into exile.
In response, Muslim Brotherhood-friendly tribes launched a full-scale uprising in the sparsely inhabited Sinai Peninsula, the location of the Biblical Mount Sinai and the scene of several major battles in the Arab-Israeli Wars, as well the location of major tourist resorts. The Egyptian army has been routinely accused of human rights abuses as it seeks to crack down on the province’s insurgents; charges the army denies, according to The New York Times.
Many Egyptian Copts look to current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi for protection. al-Sisi took power after the 2014 coup, and he is widely regarded as a new military dictator. Al-Sisi himself is Sunni but leans towards secular government, especially in comparison to his Muslim Brother predecessor. Al-Sisi has been widely accused of mass human rights abuses, but his recent glowing trip to the United States, Egypt’s main arms supplier, indicates he will not be changing his harsh tactics in his war on Sunni supremacism anytime soon.
Hoping to drive a wedge between Sisi and the Copts, Egypt’s Islamist terror groups will surely strike at this ancient Christian community in the future.
[Featured Image by Amr Nabil/AP Images]