Sinai Mosque Attack: A Deadly Signal Of President Sisi’s Failure Against Militants

On last Friday, the Rawdah mosque in northern Sinai, Egypt, witnessed the worst terrorist attack on innocent civilians in modern Egyptian history. According to latest statistics, the bomb and gun attack killed at least 305 people, including 27 children. A further 128 people were wounded in this horrendous atrocity. The attack is believed to have been carried out by Islamist militants, as assailants were seen carrying the Islamic State flag. Survivors described the attack as sophisticated, well-planned, and highly coordinated. It aimed at killing as many people as possible in the mosque that was frequented by Sufis. Sufis is a sect regarded heretical by Islamist extremists.

According to various accounts, the savage attack started around mid-day when the mosque was filled with worshipers. As the worshipers were finishing their sermon, a bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber. Outside the mosque, well-prepared terrorists opened fire on those fleeing worshipers without hesitation. Egyptian security officials reported that those terrorists were armed not only with automatic weapons but also with rocket-propelled grenades. They attacked both worshipers and ambulances that attempted to save the wounded. After the cruelty, the terrorist attackers sped off in several vehicles. All of those behaviours point to a well-planned attack.

President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi was apparently shocked by this monstrous attack. Speaking on television, he vowed that the country’s armed forces would not tolerate such action and would respond with “ brute force”. “We cannot be intimidated, our will cannot be broken,” he said. Echoing Sisi’s vengeful speech, Egypt’s military force began airstrikes in the vicinity of the mosque within hours.

Egypt’s Islamist extremists gathered momentum in 2013, after the military coup that ousted the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was also a leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Since 2013, extremist militants have repeatedly carried out large-scale attacks on security personnel. Northern Sinai has become the lingering strongholds for the IS in Egypt due to the Egyptian governments’ negligence. The Hasm Movement, another militant group growing recently, also added to Egypt’s security problem as it targeted security personnel as well as judges. According to data released by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, at least 1,000 members of the security forces were killed in various attacks in Sinai. For instance, in this July 23 soldiers were killed by suicide car bombs at two military checkpoints in Sinai, of which IS claimed responsibility. A more infamous example is that the Russian airliner, which crashed in 2015 and killed 224 people, was also brought down by local IS affiliate in this region. Besides, in recent years the IS militants even broadened their attacks on Christians and other religious groups. Dozens of churches in Cairo, Alexandria and other parts of Egypt witnessed deadly bomb attacks.

We can imagine that Christian churches could be potential targets of Egypt’s militants, but in recent history rarely do they strike against mosques. Nevertheless, orthodox Sunni Muslims consider Sufism as a heretical branch of Islam. This Friday attack clearly demonstrates that more civilians of different backgrounds are targeted. As 2 to 3 million Egyptians practice Sufism and 10% of the population are Christians, further mass killings by IS are highly likely if no action is taken.

In fact, President Sisi has always been taking actions, though Friday’s attack again proves his actions fruitless. Since his reign in 2013, numerous tanks, fighting vehicles, fighter jets, warships, together with tens of thousands of security forces, are deployed to combat IS militants in the northern part of Sinai. Such deployment costs him up to $15 billion. The region has been under emergency law for 3 years. Security forces have evacuated the place and blown up underground tunnels that are believed to be used by IS for weapon smuggling. Without a doubt, the government’s overwhelming troop deployments have prevented militants from holding territory in Sinai, but they couldn’t keep the IS affiliates from carrying out assassinations and fatal attacks on both security forces and civilians. The Friday attack is the newest indicator that Sisi’s strategy is backfiring. Instead of bringing peace and security to its people, what Sisi has been doing could only result in further escalation of the situation. Indeed, people may well be tired of such vicious circle: 1 terrorist attack, 2 government’s response including three days of mourning, reassurance of things are under control and promise of vengeance, 3 government’s military retaliation, 4 another terrorist attack. As is usually the case, this time mainstream media still focuses on praising the security force and commemorating the “martyrs.” There is little discussion about how to eradicate the IS problem as northern Sinai is closed off to journalists, rendering it hard to assess what is really happening. To give context, Mohammed Sabry is an Egyptian journalist who understands the situation of Sinai well and is now in exile because of Sisi’s crackdown on critical voices. He claims that the anti-terrorist campaign has been mismanaged for a long time. According to Sinai rights activist, male family members are sometimes arbitrarily arrested if another member is suspected to be militant. Soldiers and police are notoriously heavy-handed toward local people. Houses are razed to make room for military control and residents are forcibly evacuated, making those who oppose the militants less likely to support the security force. Consequently, due to government force’s brutality, extra-judicial killings, and other violations of human rights, local people are rather reluctant to support the campaign. As an evidence of the government’s lack of intelligence and increasing alienation with Sinai resident, last month a planned attack on militants in the Western Desert thoroughly failed and left more than a dozen of security personnel dead.

Indeed, what president Sisi needs most are not more powerful weapons or an overwhelming force. A proper counterterrorism strategy is more important. For one thing, part of the regular troops is poorly trained. For another thing, advanced fighter jets are not suitable for rugged mountain terrain. As the militants know the geography better, heavy vehicles and tanks are also an easy target for guerrilla militants. As a result, to successfully fight against terrorist groups, Sisi should firstly stop its ruthless campaign toward local people. Actionable intelligence provided by local people is crucial to beat the IS militants. Even if he doesn’t arm local people who are hostile to the militants, as the US did when defeating al-Qaeda, Sisi should still realize that they could be of great help to the security force. Government force should not vent anger on local people when anti-terrorist campaign fails. Rather it should unite with the local people, as they could all be the victim of terrorist attacks and nobody wants to see a more powerful IS affiliate. Only with a mild and cooperative attitude could the government avoid pushing local people toward IS militants. When local people have a clear understanding that government force actually sides with them, rather than being equally violent and cruel as the militants, they have no reason not to provide critical intelligence and help destroy terrorism. In this logic, this Friday attack could be another reminder for Sisi to change his reckless strategy and convince the bewildered local Sinai to jointly fight for a terror-free tomorrow.