A budding Egyptian militant group known as the Hasam Movement appears to be getting bolder in its choice of targets and tactics. On the evening of Sept. 29, a bomb placed inside a car exploded just after a vehicle carrying Egyptian Assistant Attorney General Zakaria Abdul Aziz passed by, not long after leaving the public prosecutor's building. Though Aziz was not injured in the explosion, which occurred in Cairo's Jasmine 5th District — reportedly near Aziz's home — a bystander was wounded. The incident presumably took place along the route Aziz routinely follows on his way home from work.
As initial reports of the bombing emerged, the attack seemed uncannily familiar: Its target and tactics echoed those in a series of previous attempts against high-ranking officials in Cairo, including the June 2015 assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and the botched September 2013 plot against Interior Minister Ibrahim Mohammed. At first blush, the similarities between the cases raised suspicions that the attack was conducted by the same group, a team of operatives led by former Egyptian special operations forces officer Hisham Ashmawy. The Ashmawy cell originally belonged to militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis but defected when the rest of the organization pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State. (Ashmawy and his followers remained loyal to al Qaeda.)
Upon closer inspection, though, we quickly discovered a number of telling differences in the Aziz attack.
The bomb, which Egyptian officials estimated to have used about 7 pounds of TNT, was much smaller than the devices in the Barakat and Mohammed assassination attempts. Based on the damage done to the vehicle holding the device, the bomb may have actually been a little larger than officials said, but the lack of notable damage done to nearby buildings still suggests it was nowhere near as big as the powerful devices used in the 2015 and 2013 plots. In fact, rather than a true car bomb, the explosive was more akin to a bomb placed inside a car.
Aziz's attackers also had poor timing. The operatives in the Barakat case executed their attack with precision and professionalism. But Aziz's assailants mistimed the detonation of their device by several seconds, causing the bomb to explode well after the motorcade was clear of the blast zone. Though the device probably lacked the power to punch through Aziz's armored Toyota Land Cruiser to begin with, the timing error guaranteed the attack's failure.
Each of these discrepancies pointed to a different group of assailants, and on Sept. 30, the Hasam Movement seemed to confirm it by claiming responsibility for the attack on its website. The group substantiated its claim with photographs of the bomb-laden vehicle and the explosion that, coupled with the amateur slip-ups, provided convincing evidence of its involvement. Hasam later published surveillance images of Aziz's home and vehicle as well.
A Nascent Threat
Hasam, a name that means "decisiveness" in Arabic, first attracted authorities' attention on July 16 when it announced that it had killed a senior police officer and wounded two others in an armed assault. The attack in Tamiyyah district, located some 64 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of Cairo, was followed by an attempt on former Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa's life on Aug. 5. The group claimed responsibility for that attack as well, even though the ambush failed. (A Hasam assault team lay in wait for Gomaa at a small park near his home, which he regularly walked through to attend a nearby mosque.) The group said in a statement that it aborted the attack for fear of causing civilian casualties, but in reality it appears that the mission failed because of shoddy execution rather than concerns about collateral damage.
The attacks continued into the following month. On Sept. 4, Hasam declared that it was behind the delivery of a small bomb to a street nestled between a police officer's club and an administrative authority building in the port city of Damietta. Witnesses saw the perpetrators drop the device from a motorcycle and sounded the alarm, thereby thwarting the attack. Nevertheless, three police officers were injured when they tried to deactivate the bomb. Five days later, the group said it had gunned down and killed another Egyptian police officer as he left his home in Sixth of October City.
Until the Sept. 9 attack, Hasam's operations closely mirrored those of the now-defunct Ajnad Misr, which launched a spate of shooting attacks and simple bombings in Giza and Cairo in 2014-15. Like Ajnad Misr, the group had largely focused its efforts on targeting the police. But that changed on Sept. 29. By aiming to assassinate Aziz, however flawed the actual attempt was, Hasam revealed its bigger aspirations: to attack more valuable targets using more sophisticated methods.
Finding the Means to Bigger Ends
Acquiring the skills needed to do this, however, is easier said than done. The path to developing professional terrorist tradecraft is littered with failures. These flubs frequently serve as indicators of attackers' abilities as they adapt to unfamiliar scenarios, but the operatives who learn and improve from their mistakes often go on to become exceptional terrorists.
Despite the flaws in Hasam's assassination attempts to date, the group's ability to conduct preoperational surveillance against both high-profile figures without being detected is noteworthy, particularly given Egypt's heightened level of alert amid rising terrorist activity across the country. The group's success is either an indictment against the Egyptian government's capabilities, a testament to Hasam's skill, or — more likely — some combination of both. Regardless, surveillance is what enabled the group to pinpoint weak spots in both targets' schedules and plan attacks based on those vulnerabilities. Though Hasam's execution of the attacks was found wanting, it may become far more capable and deadly over time if it is allowed to continue developing its tradecraft. It will therefore be important to watch the group for any attempts to patch the operational holes it has, whether by launching more complex ambushes, building larger bombs or shifting to more precise command-detonated devices.
Over the course of a few years, Egyptian authorities were able to dismantle Ajnad Misr and severely damage the mainland wing of Ansar Beit al Maqdis; destroying Hasam may prove just as feasible. But Egypt has a long and complex history of militancy. Considering the government is already preoccupied with cracking down on sources of political dissent and on the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai, this may make it difficult for Cairo to devote much attention to finding and uprooting Hasam — giving the group the room it needs to become even deadlier.