Islamic State claims church bombings in Egypt

Dozens of worshippers were killed or wounded when bombs were detonated at two Egyptian churches earlier today. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency quickly claimed credit for the attacks, saying that a “security detachment” had struck churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

The first bomb was detonated at Saint George church in Tanta and the second at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Pope Tawadros II, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church, finished performing services at Saint Mark’s shortly before the jihadists struck.

Initial casualty reports say that at least 37 people were killed and approximately 100 others injured, according to the Associated Press (AP). Most of the casualties were reported at the Saint George church.

The Islamic State’s men bombed another Coptic church in Cairo on Dec. 11, 2016. At least 25 people died as a result.

The Islamic State has repeatedly threatened Coptic Christians in Egypt and Libya.

In late March, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Sinai (or Sinai province) released a video (“The Light of Sharia”) advertising its implementation of harsh sharia law in the areas under its control. The production opened with a man’s arm being positioned for amputation, presumably because he committed some minor offense, such as theft. The jihadists boasted of the fact that they were cracking down on cigarettes and alcohol, both of which are prohibited in the so-called caliphate’s lands.

In “The Light of Sharia,” Wilayah Sinai blasted the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled for a short period of time in Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The Egyptian military subsequently deposed Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists used the video to criticize Morsi’s friendly relations with Pope Tawadros II and the Copts. For example, one short scene in the video features the two sharing warm words. A screen shot is included below:

The Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had a history of targeting Christian churches.

On Oct. 31, 2010, the ISI massacred dozens of Christians during a hostage situation at the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. The jihadists claimed that Copts had kidnapped Muslim women and forced them to convert to Christianity, thereby portraying the operation as a form of revenge. However, the ISI’s claims were not substantiated.

“Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism,” according to a statement that was released shortly after the killings. “This den has been frequently used by the Christians of Iraq to fight Islam and support those who are fighting it. With the grace of God, the group was able to hold captive all those in the den and take over all its entrances.”

Adam Gadahn, who was part of al Qaeda’s media arm at the time and subsequently killed in a drone strike, complained in correspondence that the ISI’s attack in Baghdad had complicated his efforts to woo Christians away from their belief.

In a letter written in Jan. 2011, Gadahn argued that Catholics were upset with the Vatican after a series of scandals. He planned to capitalize on this discontent by issuing a call to Islam directed at Catholics. Gadahn also claimed that the ISI’s stated reason for the bombing was nonsensical, as the church in Baghdad is Catholic, yet they claimed Copts in Egypt had wronged Muslims. The Catholics and Copts are different Christian factions, Gadahn wrote, and have no historical ties. Gadahn argued that al Qaeda’s senior leadership should “declare the cutoff of its organizational ties with” the ISI for a number of reasons. However, Bin Laden and Zawahiri didn’t take this advice. It wasn’t until early 2014, after the ISI spread into Syria and disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders, that al Qaeda’s general command disowned the group. And other al Qaeda-linked parties have justified or plotted against Christian targets in the past.

The attacks against Christian churches kept coming.

On New Years Day 2011, jihadists detonated a bomb outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. More than 20 Christians were killed and roughly 100 others wounded.

The Islamic State has also targeted Copts in Libya. In Feb. 2015, the Islamic State’s arm released a video depicting the mass execution of 21 Christians, saying the slaughter was carried out to “avenge the kidnapping of Muslim women by the Egyptian Coptic Church.” It was the same reason given for the massacre in Baghdad several years prior.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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