Around midday on Friday (local time) militants entered a mosque in Egypt’s Northern Sinai Province and opened fire on worshippers, killing at least 305 people and wounding an additional 128, in what is being called Egypt’s deadliest terror attack in modern history. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack as of yet, the attack bears the hallmarks of ISIS-affiliated militant groups, who have previously operated in the Sinai province. Additionally, Egyptian officials have stated that the militants were carrying an ISIS flag.
Around 25 to 30 militants reportedly surrounded the mosque in the small town of Bir al-Abed with four wheel drives before detonating bombs inside. They then opened fire in the mosque, while other militants burnt cars in the parking lot in order to prevent people from escaping. The gunmen were still at the scene when first responders arrived, opening fire on the ambulances, before dispersing once security services began to arrive, according to a televised statement from a government official. More than 50 ambulances reportedly ferried the injured from the mosque to nearby hospitals, many of which struggled to deal with the sheer number of casualties.
In a televised statement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said “we will respond to this act with brute force against these terrorists. This terrorist act will strengthen our resolve, steadfastness, and will to stand up to, resist, and battle against terrorism.” Sisi also declared a three-day mourning period across the country for the victims of the attack.
The Egyptian military responded swiftly to the attack and used gathered intelligence to launch airstrikes against known militant strongholds, bases, and weapons caches. In a statement, the military also said “the [Egyptian] Air Force chased down terrorist elements, discovered and destroyed a number of vehicles that carried out the terrorist attack, and killed those inside them in the vicinity of the attack.” They also reiterated they would continue to work with North Sinai law enforcement forces to battle terrorism in the area.
This attack in particular has caused surprise amongst many, not only for the high number of casualties, but also due to the attack being carried out in a mosque, which is generally considered atypical in Egypt. Many ISIS-affiliated militants and other militants operating in the Sinai Province typically target Coptic Christian churches and military bases and convoys, generally avoiding Muslim mosques. However, the attack on the Al-Rawda mosque was supposedly targeting Sufi Muslims. Sufi Muslims practice a more mystical and spiritual form of Islam that focuses on an “inward search for God.” Many Sunni extremists, along with ISIS, see this as heretical, and in the past have called Sufism a “disease” that is nothing more than “sorcery and soothsaying.”
While the scale and location of this attack is new, Egypt’s Sinai Province has long been a battleground for the Egyptian military. And while the government has been attempting to curb the insurgency since they came to power in 2013, they have had little success in doing so, largely due to the use of outdated methods in fighting the militants and ISIS affiliates. According to the New York Times, many American military officials have attempted to persuade Sisi to use different methods and approaches, including “equipment and training for intelligence gathering,” to fight the insurgency in Sinai, although this has been met with little success.
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