CATF Reports Dec. 23, 2016, 9:33am


The death toll of the December 11 suicide attack on a Coptic church in Cairo rose to 27 on Wednesday after a ten-year-old girl who had been in a coma since the blast passed away. The tragic death of the young girl adds to the misery of the attack at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Copts in years. Not only did the carnage leave behind a trail of mourners, but it has also strained tense sectarian relations in Egypt and even spurred a war of words between Cairo and Doha.

Copts gathered outside the cathedral in protest in the aftermath of the bomb. Angry worshippers claimed distracted security guards, and even the absence of security protection, had allowed the attacker in a bulging jacket to enter the cathedral and detonate the bomb. Claims of culpability, however, soon gave way to promises of revenge and even the Arab Spring’s trademark chant, “the people demand the fall of the regime.” Such antigovernment protests are rare among Egypt’s Coptic minority, a group that has offered strong support to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi since entering office in 2014, but illustrate the community’s growing frustration with religious persecution inside the country.

The day after the deadly Sunday mass, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior issued a statement on the terrorist attacker. The Ministry claimed that the attacker was a member of a terrorist cell whose leader had plotted the attack with directions and financial support from Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Qatar. To defend their claim, the Ministry pointed to the alleged leader of the terrorist cell Mohammed al-Qassem’s visit to Qatar in 2015. Egypt’s weighty allegations triggered a fiery response from Qatar which issued its own statement claiming that Cairo’s “hasty statements” could affect relations between Egypt and the GCC. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the international community not to “drag (down) Qatar’s name.” While Doha admitted that Mohammed al-Qassem visited Qatar in 2015, Ambassador Ahmed al-Rumaihi claimed that Qatari authorities received no requests from Egyptian security personnel to detain the suspect or prevent his entrance into the country.

Since the emergence of disputes between Cairo and Doha, ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, citing suicide bomber Abu Abdallah al-Masri while exiled Muslim Brotherhood officials condemned the attack. While both the ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood claims remain unsubstantiated, especially since ISIS has been suspected of acting opportunistically in claiming attacks in the past, it is worth reviewing the profile of the attacker and his suspected affiliates.

The suicide bomber is believed to be Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa. In 2014, when Mustafa was 16 years old, he was arrested for taking part in an “illegal organization” (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) and carrying arms during an Islamist protest in Fayoum. Gulf News claimed that Mustafa was not just carrying arms but was “securing Muslim Brotherhood convoys while armed.” Following his arrest, Egyptian police snapped a picture of Mustafa and an acquaintance with bleeding noses and bruised faces standing behind a rifle, ammunition, and a suspected homemade bomb. One of Mustafa’s lawyers, Mahmoud Hassan, claims that his client was tortured until agreeing to confess to the charges. Following his arrest, Mustafa was detained for two months before being released on bail. While reports have claimed that Mustafa was radicalized during detainment and enduring torture, his possession of arms and explosives at an anti-government protest, if Egyptian charges are to be believed, points to an individual whose dangerous intentions were only hardened during detainment.

Upon being released in 2016, it is believed that Mustafa joined a terrorist cell based in Cairo’s Zeitoun district led by Mohab Mostafa El-Sayed Kassem. During investigations following the blast, Egyptian authorities found two explosive belts as well as materials used to make explosives at the group’s Zeitoun hideout. Kassem, whose militant name is “the doctor”, is an alleged member of the Muslim Brotherhood and traveled to Qatar in 2015 where he is believed to have met with Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled Egypt following the removal of Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013. It was during the visit that, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders provided Kassem with financial and logistical support to carry out an attack in Egypt in order to create instability and cause sectarian rage. Following his Qatar visit, Kassem is believed to have traveled to North Sinai province to receive training from insurgents on using weapons and assembling explosive devices. Kassem reportedly met with the now-defunct Ansar Beit al-Maqdis terrorist group which pledged its allegiance to ISIS in late 2014 and became the backbone of the ISIS “Sinai Province.”  

The police also arrested four additional members of the terrorist cell during a raid on the Zeitoun hideout. The arrested members were identified as Ramy Mohamed Abdel-Ghany, his wife Ola Hussein Ali, Mohamed Hamdy Abdel-Ghany, and the brother of the cell’s leader, Mohsen El-Sayed Kassem. The four members have been accused of assisting the bomber, Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa, in the lead-up to the deadly blast.

Cairo is justified in mentioning the attacker’s recent visit to Qatar and the government’s suspicions that he met with Muslim Brotherhood leaders while in the country, despite the costs of such statements to the already tense Qatari-Egyptian relationship. On the other hand, Qatar’s denial of a Qatari link to the attack is perhaps supported by the ISIS claim of credit for the attack. But so long as the specifics of the visit to Qatar remain unclear, tracing the footprints of the attack will continue to be a difficult task. With that in mind, it can be assumed that Egyptian police will be closely monitoring any mention of coordination with the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood leaders from the detained members of the terrorist cell.  

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