Shootings in St Catherine
AS Al-Ahram Weekly was going to print on Tuesday night a terrorist attack took place in the South Sinai city of St Catherine. According to an Interior Ministry statement, militants fired at a checkpoint on the way to St Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest working monastic establishments in the world. They killed one and injured three policemen.
“Security forces exchanged fire with the militants,” head of the Interior Ministry’s Media Department said.
“Some of the militants were injured and fled leaving behind an automatic rifle and several bullets.”
The three injured policemen were taken to Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital for treatment.
The incident comes just a week after two bombings on churches in Tanta and Alexandria claimed by the Islamic State left 46 killed.
An Interior Ministry statement released on Sunday announced the arrest of 13 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members accused of belonging to terrorist cells suspected of “bombings and other hostile acts” against government and Christian targets. The statement also provided details of raids on two farms, one in Beheira governorate, the second in Alexandria, where security forces found large quantities of weapons and explosives.
“Information obtained by National Security indicates local leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were instructed by the group’s leaders abroad to establish armed cells in the governorates of Damietta, Beheira, Alexandria and Kafr Al-Sheikh and undertake a series of bombings and hostile other acts against government and Christian targets in order to spread chaos and fuel internal strife,” said the statement.
Eight of the arrested men live in the Damietta city of Al-Basarta, a stronghold of Brotherhood supporters. The remaining five are from Alexandria.
“Farms in Beheira and Alexandria governorates owned by Brotherhood leaders were raided. Security forces found tunnels and subterranean hideouts that were being used to make explosive devices and store weapons,” the statement said. It is the largest weapons cache to be uncovered in two decades.
A few days earlier the Interior Ministry named the suicide bombers behind the Palm Sunday attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta.
The bombing at Alexandria’s St Mark’s Church was carried out by Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak, 31.
Mubarak, from Suez governorate, worked in an oil company and was the subject of an arrest warrant issued in 2016. According to the Interior Ministry, he was a member of a terror cell led by Amr Saad, a fugitive who investigators say formed several Islamic State-affiliated cells which target state institutions and churches. One of Saad’s cells is thought to be behind December’s suicide bombing of Cairo’s St Peter and St Paul’s Church, which left 29 dead. Another cell is suspected of the January bombing of the Al-Naqab police checkpoint in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid which killed eight policemen.
A reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest of members of the Saad affiliated terrorist cells.
The suicide bomber of the St George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta was named as 40-year-old Mamdouh Amin Al-Baghdadi from Qena. In its statement the Interior Ministry named three suspected accomplices of Al-Baghdadi — Salama Wahballah Abbas, Abdel-Rahman Mubarak and Ali Shahat Hussein — and offered a reward of up to LE500,000 for information leading to their arrest.
On Sunday the prosecutor-general detained three men pending investigations into the two bombings. The arrests came two days after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s met with Pope Tawadros II at Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbaseya to extend condolences for the victims of the Palm Sunday attacks. During the meeting Al-Sisi said “all state apparatuses are exerting their utmost efforts to find the perpetrators of the abhorrent acts and bring them to justice,” according to a presidential statement issued last week.
A three-month state of emergency was declared by Al-Sisi following the Palm Sunday attacks. During his meeting with Tawadros, Al-Sisi said he was confident the public was aware that those who undertook the attacks did so in the hope of fomenting strife and to undermine efforts to develop and restore security and stability.
In recent months Coptic Christians, who comprise an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, have been targeted by several terrorist attacks. Following Palm Sunday’s bombings security was tightened around churches across the country.
Political parties, MPs and security experts have all called for an urgent review of the Interior Ministry’s security strategies, particularly when it comes to guarding churches. The responsibility for protecting churches is currently shared between the Interior Ministry and private security firms employed by the church. Policemen guarding the St George Church in Tanta at the time of the bombing told Al-Ahram Weekly that the private security firm, which employed young Coptic men from the area familiar with the congregation, was responsible for the entry gate. They called on the police only when they were suspicious of someone entering the church premises.
“That two separate entities share responsibility for securing churches causes security breaches,” security expert Khaled Okasha told the Weekly. “The way churches are secured needs to be comprehensively reviewed. Access gates clearly need to be equipped with more accurate security and surveillance equipment.”
Police guarding a church in Alexandria echoed Okasha’s concerns.
“The metal detectors at church gates are not enough. They need to be supplemented by sniffer dogs for any explosive materials,” one policeman told the Weekly.
Okasha also believes security personnel need more specialised training. He warns that “in future terrorist groups may turn their focus away from churches due to tightened security and seek other targets.”
“This possibility makes it vital for the Interior Ministry to review its security strategies around all government facilities and other vital institutions.”
Last week Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told MPs new legislation aimed at enhancing security would soon be discussed by the House. It will include extending the use of security cameras around vital facilities and creating larger security cordons around churches.
Abdel-Aal’s comments came in response to demands by MP Inji Murad who demanded the Interior Ministry revise its strategy for securing state institutions.