Eight people were killed on Friday during clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood just hours after four bombs rocked Cairo—the biggest targeting the city’s police headquarters in the deadliest blast to hit the capital in living memory.
The bombing of the police headquarters that left four people dead and wounded at least 76 marks an escalation in jihadist violence. It undercuts claims by the army that it can contain terrorism and overcome other militant challenges to state authorities triggered by the military’s ousting in July of Islamist Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
An al-Qaeda-inspired militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), claimed responsibility for the attack on the police building, heightening fears that a low-level insurgency mainly confined to the Sinai Peninsula is breaking out and is now capable of striking at high-profile targets elsewhere at will.
The attack on the headquarters building came at 6:30 am local time and, according to Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, it was a suicide bombing. “A pick-up truck had two passengers inside, stopped outside the security cordon, and the suicide bomber blew himself up,” he told the state news agency. The blast left a huge crater.
Maj. Gen. Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry told reporters guards opened fire at the vehicle as it approached, pointing out the explosion went off on the perimeter of the compound rather than inside it. But the fact that a bomber could even get close to what should have been one of the best-protected buildings in the city is surprising.
The blast destroyed the front of the first and second floors of the eight-story headquarters, he said, and damaged the third floor. The nearby 19th-century Islamic art museum was also damaged in the explosion.
A second explosion occurred in the Dokki district of the capital outside a metro station. One person was killed and 15 wounded in that blast. The other bombings included a blast near a cinema near the Giza pyramids but there were no reports of casualties.
In a statement posted to online militant forums, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis later claimed responsibility for all four bombings, saying, “We tell our dear nation that these attacks were only the first drops of rain, so wait for what is coming up.”
“This is the first time the group has ever done a multi-pronged attack outside North Sinai,” says David Barnett, a researcher on jihadist groups at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
“Since November ABM has been more focused on less frequent but more high profile attacks,” he added. “Since Morsi’s overthrow no other groups have shown the same capability and intent as Ansar Bayt al Maqdis.”
Interior minister Muhammad Ibrahim insisted on Friday that the security forces are ready to deal with any trouble during the Arab Spring anniversary, but the jihadist bombings in Cairo and clashes across the country with Morsi supporters raise questions about what the authorities can do to counter the multiple challenges facing them.
The bombings came just days after the country voted in a two-day referendum approving a new constitution for the country. The passing of the constitution – Islamists and some moderate groups boycotted the referendum –appears to have cleared the way for General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the army chief, to declare formally a run for the presidency.
Shortly after the bombings Morsi supporters and police clashed in dozens of incidents across the country, including in the Nile Delta, northeast of Cairo, and in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.
There were also clashes in Giza and hundreds of Islamists gathered in the west of Cairo, burning tires and hurling lit fireworks at security forces, who responded by firing tear gas, news agency MENA reported. More than a hundred protesters were arrested in several governorates.
But it is the bombings in Cairo that are more likely to alarm the army. The biggest bombing in terms of scale pulled off by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis previously was in December and not in the capital but on a security building in the northern city of Mansoura. Sixteen were killed in that blast more than 100 wounded.
Since the summer the army has been scrambling to contain a burgeoning jihadist insurgency in the Sinai. In the wake of a series of terrorist incidents, including car bombs and a near- successful assassination attempt on the interior minister, Egypt’s security chiefs asked European countries for equipment to detect and defuse explosives and for surveillance cameras to help protect government offices.
The main jihadist groups -- Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis al-Furqan Brigades and the Jamal Network -- are intertwined and al-Qaeda-linked. Some analysts have identified Ramzi Mowafi, an Egyptian physician who was close to Osama bin Laden, as one of the veterans shaping the growing insurgency.
And the jihadist insurgency based out of the Sinai has been escalating, despite the biggest deployment of the Egyptian military in the peninsula for decades. In November, Egypt’s military said the rate of terrorist attacks had declined, leading to optimism among army officers that security sweeps and a bloody crackdown were having an effect.
But al-Qaeda's links with Egypt’s jihadist groups have been growing. In August The Daily Beast reported that American intelligence had intercepted an Internet-based conference call between al-Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, and representatives of 20 jihadist groups, including some from the Sinai Peninsula. The attacks have also been growing in sophistication and strategic value.