Egypt Likely to See More ISIS Attacks, Needs to Change How it Fights Terror, Analysts Say

Some analysts say Egypt's repression of dissent could encourage more terrorism.

ByABC News
December 15, 2016, 1:15 PM

— -- In the wake of a bombing that killed 24 people at a Cairo church, some analysts warn the largest country in the Arab world may face more attacks by ISIS.

Sunday’s assault on civilians in the Egyptian capital signals that ISIS, which on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack, is escalating its offensive in the country and shows the need for the country to change how it fights terrorism.

Egypt’s leadership downplayed the significance of the attack. In a speech Monday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called it a “desperate blow” by terrorists.

“They are trying to shake us,” he said shortly after he identified the assailant as a 22-year-old suicide bomber, Mahmoud Shafik. “They have been trying for three years in vain.”

Since the 2013 Sissi-led ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's government has fought an Islamist insurgency in northern parts of the Sinai Peninsula while at the same time waging war against domestic opponents, jailing thousands of members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular dissidents.

Islamic militants have for the most part avoided targeting civilians in Egypt. But since the Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014, the group’s tactics have changed and over time it has copied ISIS' practice of indiscriminately killing civilians.

In 2015, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis downed a Russian plane leaving from the popular tourist area of Sharm El-Sheikh, killing all 224 aboard. The attack was a hard blow to Egypt's country's already struggling economy. Tourism, the country's main source of foreign currency, has since the attack had its biggest losses in 20 years.

El-Sissi has dismissed claims that security flaws allowed the attack to occur and has called for stricter laws to fight terrorism.

But some analysts told ABC News that Egypt needs to end mass arrests and instead focus on individual perpetrators of violence if it wants to effectively prevent more attacks.

"Targeting the perpetrators and avoiding mass arrests and collective punishment is key to ensuring the state achieves justice and prevents violence, while also maintaining legitimacy and respecting the rights of citizens," said Allison McManus, research director at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

McManus warned that mass arrests of dissidents can lead to radicalization happening inside Egyptian prisons, "where the disenfranchised come into contact with those seasoned in extremist violence."

The suicide bomber implicated in Sunday's attack is said by his family to have been tortured while in police custody in 2014.

McManus added that the country needs to create space for "peaceful political engagement."

"Egypt is currently implementing repressive social and legal strategies to criminalize protest, organizing, and expression [and] that will be counterproductive to long-term stability," she said.

Another analyst agreed that Egypt needs to be more focused on ISIS.

"While Egypt has succeeded in keeping ISIS elements contained to a part of north Sinai, it has yet to face the full dedicated focus of ISIS planners and returning fighters with high levels of expertise," said Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

The country needs to develop a more nimble and targeted approach that relies on intelligence to better understand and disrupt terrorist networks, Awad said.

"If the government does not revise its intelligence and counterterrorism approach, Egypt may be unable for some time to successfully detect ISIS cells and [may] be surprised with possible sophisticated attacks like we saw in Europe," he added.

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