Multiple bombings in Cairo and Alexandria on 3 February are demonstrative of the increase in suspected militant attacks across Lower Egypt in recent weeks. If sustained, reports of more frequent bombings against civilian targets such as public squares and shopping centres would represent a significant shift in militant tactics in urban areas. The threat from Islamist militants remains concentrated in the Sinai, but efforts by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to support attacks outside of this restive area could undermine investor confidence in Egypt ahead of a major donor conference in March.
On 3 February, two bombs at the international airport were safely defused while another exploded near Talat Harb Square, on Qasr El-Nil street in Cairo without causing any causalities. In Alexandria, two separate blasts targeting a security patrol in the Agamy district and the Mabaret al-Asafra Hospital left two people dead and five others wounded. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, but Islamist militants are suspected, and it was unclear if the attacks were in any way coordinated.
The recent attacks were demonstrative of an upsurge in bombings in major cities in Lower Egypt, with attacks involving IEDs and homemade explosive devices reported throughout Alexandria, Fayoum, Greater Cairo, Kafr Al-Sheikh and Aswan over the past month. Though Egypt has witnessed regular small-scale bombings in its major cities since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, the uptick in recent attacks appears to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the county's revolution on 25 January. The PGI Risk Portal has recorded 22 incidents of political violence between 25 January and 5 February in Lower Egypt alone.
A sustained increase in attacks against critical infrastructure and civilian or so-called soft targets would be significant, given that past attacks have predominantly targeted security forces and public buildings. Suspected militants have caused some disruption and casualties through the use of homemade bombs targeting railways, electricity pylons and most notably the capital's metro system. Yet the failed Cairo airport bombing is a potential escalation of attempts to target infrastructure given the high-profile of the facility, also demonstrated by the considerable international media attention given to the attack. The recent violence is also significant in that a number of unprotected and largely civilian locations have been targeted, including Talat Harb square and the attempted bombing of the popular City Star shopping mall on 26 January. It remains too early to assess whether these recent trends will be sustained, but increased attacks against civilians could be part of an attempt to undermine confidence in the security services and government. Any shift in militant activities in Egypt's most heavily populated and travelled urban areas could increase the risk to both businesses and foreign visitors.
Despite the increased frequency of attacks, the number of overall casualties has remained low. This reflects militant's reliance on homemade and relatively unsophisticated devices, which are often detonated prematurely, in most of their attacks outside of the Sinai. Many of the IEDs used against civilian targets are sound bombs or flash-bang type devices, which are designed to inspire panic but result in minimal damage or casualties. A series of coordinated bombings claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr that killed six people and injured more than 100 others in Cairo in January 2014 highlighted the threat to major cities, but complex attacks of this scale have not been sustained. Any indication that jihadists are acquiring more lethal explosives or are capable of sustaining more complex operations outside of the Sinai would represent a greater threat in urban areas, particularly if increasingly deployed against civilian targets.
The militant threat in Egypt remains most severe in the Sinai, where on 29 January Islamic State (IS)-affiliate Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis carried out a series of coordinated attacks targeting security forces, killing 25 people and wounding at least 58 others. The bombings and raids demonstrated that the group remains capable of launching sophisticated and deadly attacks even as security forces intensify their campaign in the area. Militant commanders in the Sinai cited in a 4 February report by Reuters acknowledged that Egyptian military operations had curtailed their access to arms via Gaza and resulted in the deaths of around 1,000 fighters. However, in response to growing military pressure on its current strongholds, Ansar may attempt to increase its attacks outside of the Sinai or to target more sensitive locations such as the Suez Canal. Previous joint attacks with Ajnad Misr highlight the potential for the IS-affiliate to transfer technical and military knowledge to militants based elsewhere, potentially widening the scope of the current insurgency.
The militant threat in Egypt's major cities will remain in part reactive and linked to significant anniversaries and major political events, such as elections and the trial of ousted Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi. Any shift in perceptions regarding the militant threat however, could damage confidence in Egypt's new government at critical time. Since coming to office in June 2014, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has prioritised improving the stagnant economy and a large donor conference planned for March 2015 in Sharm-el-Sheikh will be major test of sentiment in the business and investment community. More frequent low-intensity attacks in major cities and continued spectacular operations in and out of the Sinai could jeopardise the government's ability to attract the investment necessary to tackle high-levels of poverty and unemployment, social factors thought to contribute to the persistence of the militant threat in Egypt.