* Islamic State attack on Copts highlights intent to strike minorities over coming months, but capabilities in mainland Egypt will remain limited
* Attack in Minya Governorate shows IS will remain committed to targeting Christians in South to build its support among Islamist hardliners
* Intent to strike Copts will spike over Christmas period, but IS’s low capabilities suggest threat of major strike in large urban centres unlikely
Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for an attack on 2 November in which armed militants ambushed three buses carrying Coptic Christians travelling to a remote monastery in the southern Minya Governorate, shooting dead at least seven people. President al-Sisi contacted Coptic Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences after the attack and vowed to continue his security campaign targeting extremist groups. Subsequently, on 4 November, security forces reported that they had killed nineteen militants suspected of involvement in the 2 November attack. IS issued an additional threat on 8 November, promising to further target Christians, as well as foreign embassies in Egypt.
Copts represent around 10% of Egyptians, and provide significant backing for President al-Sisi, particularly his anti-Islamist agenda. IS has therefore conducted a series of past attacks targeting Copts, to increase support from Islamist hardliners who despise the community over its support for al-Sisi, and particularly its backing for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked former President Mohamed Mursi in 2013. Striking in mainland Egypt, outside of the Sinai Peninsula where IS’s capabilities are largely concentrated, is also intended to undermine al-Sisi, particularly after the President promised to crush jihadist groups in Egypt following the mass-casualty al-Rawdah mosque attack late last year. This attack therefore represents a continuation of IS’s approach, with the wider aim of reasserting the groups credibility following the loss of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
IS will likely have preferred to conduct an attack within major urban centres, similar to their bombing of a chapel adjacent to the Coptic cathedral in Cairo two years ago , as such attacks have a higher propaganda value. However, the Governmentâ€™s suppression of the Islamist opposition and the wider Salafi-jihadist community has limited the groups ability to expand its presence and capabilities in Egypt proper. This, coupled with enhanced security measures in major cities will have incentivised IS to conduct attacks in remoter areas, such as in Minya Governorate, and indeed the group conducted a near identical attack on individuals travelling to a monastery in the area on 26 May 2017. Further, there are long-standing tensions between Muslims and Christians in the South, and thus the group will have been keen to carry out an attack here, in the hopes of building its support among the Salafi-jihadist community in the South over the longer term.
This latest attack highlights IS’s commitment to targeting minorities, meaning its threat to carry out further attacks against Christians is credible, and the groups intent to strike will particularly rise over Christmas, which Copts celebrate on 7 January. However, while IS retains small cells in cities such as Cairo and Alexandria their limited capabilities, combined with heightened security at relevant religious sites, will make it difficult for the group to conduct a major attack. The groups limited capabilities also suggest that IS is unlikely to successfully target any foreign embassies in line with its 8 November threat, although it is likely credible that the group has a desire to strike such targets and could attempt a one-off major attack in the coming months. Ultimately, however, even a successful strike would fail to augment IS’s domestic popularity, as the majority of Egyptian Islamists reject its use of violence. As such, any IS attacks in mainland Egypt will continue to pose little threat to the Governments stability over the coming months, and the groups activities will remain largely focused in North Sinai in 2019.