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ANALYSIS: IS kidnap of Westerner in Egypt threatens foreign investment prospects

The potential execution of a Croatian by IS in Egypt could have negative implications for the country's already poor economy
A still from the video released by the Islamic State group's Egyptian affiliate (Screen grab)

CAIRO - In a video posted online on Wednesday night, affiliates of the Islamic State (IS) group threatened to kill a Croatian man if the government does not release all female Muslim detainees within 48 hours. The 30 year-old Tomislav Salopek, father of two children, appeared in the sadly familiar orange jumpsuit, kneeling down in front of a masked militant in military attire holding a knife.

Salopek, who works for the French geophysical company CGG, was abducted in the Greater Cairo area on 22 July by armed men who stopped his vehicle at gunpoint, forced the driver to leave and drove away, according to a statement issued by the Croatian Foreign Ministry.

According to security sources, he was abducted 50 kilometres outside the capital, while driving from the 6 of October satellite city on the Desert Road. Egyptian authorities have not released an official statement or further information following the kidnapping and the release of the video by IS.

"[The Egyptian government] clearly wants to downplay the incident. They will continue to treat it as being minor,” Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and a former professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Middle East Eye.

The video was released only hours ahead of the celebrations for the inauguration of the Suez canal expansion.

The episode, however, might signal a change of strategy by Wilayat Sinai, the IS Sinai Province group. “I suspect that they will turn ever more to such tactics as they are relatively easy to implement and have high impact,” Springborg explained.

So far, militant groups operating in Egypt have refrained from targeting foreigners, and Westerners specifically, focusing instead on security forces.

But it is not the first time that militants in Sinai mimic the gruesome style IS has become famed for in Syria and Iraq.

Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM), Sinai’s largest militant group, had claimed responsibility for the killing of an American citizen in August 2014. William Bill Henderson, a production expert working for Texas-based Apache energy company in Egypt’s Western Desert was gunned down on the road between Qarun and Karama.

ABM claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing pictures of Henderson’s passport and badge only in December 2014, soon after pledging alliance to the IS and changing its name to Wilayat Sinai. The Egyptian government downplayed the episode and did not provide further information on the investigations.

In August 2014, while the world was still shocked by the death of journalist James Foley in Syria, ABM beheaded local Sinai bedouins accused of collaborating with the security forces or with Israel’s Mossad secret services. Other executions and gruesome videos followed in December 2014 and in January 2015, tallying a total of 12 people killed according to the group.

“It seems pretty obvious that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or even in Libya, has an influence on Wilayat Sinai. On the tactics employed and political goals,” explained a former Egyptian security officer who asked to remain anonymous. “Recently there was probably pressure coming from Raqqa (the IS stronghold in Syria) to step up the game in Egypt," he added.

Evidence for this, according to the former security officer, lies in the group's activities.

First, Wilayat Sinai militants attacked and almost took control of the northern Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweid in an effort to test their strength, show their capabilities and expose the government’s inability to counter them.

Second, the recent bombing at the Italian Consulate in Cairo “was carried out on behalf of the entire Islamic State, not simply one wilayat (province),"  explained Zack Gold, visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Third, the kidnapping of Tomislav Salopek and the release of the first Wilayat Sinai video portraying a foreigner in an orange jumpsuit in Egypt marked a clear shift toward IS's trademark tactics of kidnapping and threatening to execute Westerners.

The attempted attack in the Karnak Temple in Luxor should also be added to the list of episodes that signal the recent escalation of violence and a more aggressive strategy adopted by the IS.

“The militants want to show Egypt’s vulnerability when the government has finally succeeded in luring back investments and President Sisi is regarded as a respectable leader, a bastion against extremism in the region,” said the unnamed former security official.

“If there is a spate of attacks and kidnappings on foreign institutions it will have a negative impact on foreign presence, therefore on the economy and on the image of the goverment,” said Professor Springborg. “It is probably the government’s greatest vulnerability."

“These events undermine trust in the country. Spreading fear may affect tourism revenues, investment decisions and further heightened security measures may be expected,” Janet Basurto, an analyst at IceServe24, said.

The reasoning behind the kidnapping of a Croatian national, who is an employee of a French company, is not immediately clear. Hours after the video release, supporters of the IS online have justified it either with Croatia’s minimal support to the anti-IS coalition or with French President François Hollande's close relationship with Cairo. Egypt recently purchased French Rafale fighter jets, while new arms deals might be finalised soon.

Salopek “was probably a very soft target, but in addition, the fulsome support for Sisi by the French President may have played a role,” Springborg claimed.

“They might have followed him in order to stop his car at gunpoint, but I think it had less to do with him, his nationality or his employee and more with the strategic, but random, opportunity of kidnapping a westerner,” the former security official said. 

“The aims of the abduction are presumably both economic and political. They want to discourage foreign investments and presence in the country, while at the same time show their capabilities," Springborg said.

“The request to free Salopek - the release of thousands of female Muslim detainees - is simply unrealistic. They just want to draw the attention, but the government is not giving them any,” said the former security officer. “On one side, Egypt cannot talk to the terrorists and refuse the hardline kept until now, on the other side it needs to downplay the episode,” he explained.

“This is part of a bigger game theory: appeasement process," Basurto said. “Releasing convicted terrorists as a means to free a kidnapped victim is appeasement and sets a dangerous precedent - which is likely to lead to further kidnapping."

If this becomes a pattern and foreigners or foreign buildings and institutions are targeted repeatedly, the future does not look bright for Egypt.

“The impact on foreign investments will be hard to assess, but it might undermine the achievements of the Suez Canal,” the security officer said.