Islamic State claims church bombings in Egypt

ISIS claimed responsibility for bombings that killed 36 at two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday — brazen strikes against a vulnerable minority on one of the most important days on the Christian calendar.

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 “covert cell” had struck churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

The terror group’s Amaq media wing said “a security detachment” of the Islamic State carried out the attacks on the churches. The bombings also left scores wounded.

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, was reportedly in attendance at Saint Mark’s either shortly before or after 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.

Security personnel investigate the scene of a bomb blast at St. George's Church in Tanta, Egypt, on Palm Sunday.

The first blast was in the northern city of Tanta, where a powerful explosion ripped through a Palm Sunday service at St George’s Church, killing 25 people and wounding 60 others, state TV reported. The explosive device was planted under a seat in the main prayer hall, it said.
Not long after that, at least 11 people were killed and 35 others wounded in a suicide bomb attack outside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, according to two state-news outlets. Egyptian state media also reported that the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was inside the Church when the blast happened. He was not injured.
In a statement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi condemned the attacks, saying the “outrageous” action “targets both the Copts and Muslims of the homeland.” He ordered investigators to “hunt down the perpetrators” and “take all measures to offer the necessary care for the wounded.”
He has called an urgent meeting of his country’s National Defense Council.
“The attack will not undermine the resolve and true will of the Egyptian people to counter the forces of evil, but will only harden their determination to move forward on their trajectory to realize security, stability and comprehensive development,” the statement said..
Rescue workers help a victim of the attack in Alexandria.
The horrific attacks were the latest against Christians in the region, this time on Palm Sunday — the Sunday before Easter, and the day that marks the start of Holy Week for Christians.
Nile and Masriya TV, Egyptian state outlets, aired black banners in the upper left of its newscasts to signify mourning for the victims of both explosions.
News footage from Tanta shows people gathering at the church, singing hymns. The video then quickly switches to bars as harrowing screams and cries echo in the background.

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

“Everything is destroyed inside the church” and blood can be seen on marble pillars, said Peter Kamel, who saw the aftermath of the carnage.
It appeared the explosive device was placed near the altar, he said. Priests and the church choir were among the casualties.
State TV reported that Gen. Hossam El-Din Khalifa, head of the security directorate in Gharbiya province, has been replaced. Tanta is in Gharbiya province.
In Alexandria, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that police assigned to St. Mark’s stopped a terrorist with an explosive belt from breaking into the church. Along with civilians, a policeman, a policewoman and other police staff were killed.
Egyptian blogger Maged Butter told CNN he saw five or six ambulances and blood stains 100 meters away from the site of the explosion — which happened near the church gate.
He said women were crying and looking for their loved ones and were yelling at police for “not protecting” them.
“Every now and then, I see a person crying — I think they are Christian — and they keep saying: ‘have you seen my family? Have you seen my family?’ ” Butter said.
Fadi Sami, another witness, was inside the Alexandria cathedral when he heard about the church bombing in Tanta, when the Coptic pope was leading the prayers for Palm Sunday.
And even though no one announced the Tanta news, Sami said he could hear the sadness in the pope’s voice. He left as the pope finished the sermon. Twenty minutes later, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of the church.
“I came back and the area was covered in smoke. The stores around the church were all destroyed,” he said. “There were bodies and body parts everywhere, outside and inside the gate. I saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag.”
“It’s difficult to process this idea, that if I left 20 minutes later, I would have stopped to exist in this world,” the 26-year-old Sami told CNN.
Women try to reach loved ones after the attack in Alexandria.
Alexandria sits on the Mediterranean and has a large Christian population. Downtown is usually busy but was relatively quiet on Sunday because of the holiday. “This is usually a very busy area, but thank God it is a Sunday, and many shops are closed,” he said.
Copts have faced persecution and discrimination that has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
Dozens have been killed in sectarian clashes.

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.

Sources:  FDD’s Long War Journal and CNN