At least 311 people have been left dead after Islamist militants attacked a mosque in Sinai, north- east Egypt. The attack took place during Friday prayers, which often sees high attendances at the Al-Rawda mosque’s services. It is believed that around 30 attackers took part in the massacre.
An initial bombing inside the mosque was followed by gunfire and grenade attacks on those trying to escape. Emergency services were targeted also. The death toll is expected to rise, it is already the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history.
Egyptian officials have said the attackers were carrying ISIS flags and it is widely suspected to have been carried out by the Islamic State’s affiliates in Sinai. Since 2011 it has killed hundreds of Egyptian security personnel and claimed responsibility for the 2015 downing of a Russian passenger flight, killing 224. Until recently, Egyptian Islamists have focused their attacks on Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority: however, this attack suggests a change in strategy. Islamists have extensively tried to win support of the local population both in Egypt and across the Middle East, and the horror and magnitude of this attack will represent a blow to those efforts.
ISIS have still not claimed responsibility for it but other local Islamist groups such as the Al- Qaeda affiliated Sons of Islam condemned the attack.
Friday’s attack was against a mosque affiliated to Sufism. In the eyes of ISIS and many other Salafist jihadists those affiliated with Sufism are committing ‘shirk’, denying the oneness of God, through their practice of Islam which is mystical and often involves music and dance. Salafists seek to return to the religious ways and practices
of the Prophet’s first followers, the Salaf, and therefore see Sufis as practicing an impure form of the Islamic faith. Religious practices such as the veneration of saints are seen as polytheism, and therefore ISIS refers to Sufis as “mushrikin”, Arabic for polytheist. Sufism itself is not a sect and is better described as a religious devotion, part of mainstream Sunni Islam.
According to Egyptian media reports, the mosque had been warned the week previously to end its Sufi rituals and the religious leader in charge complied with the demands. In an earlier edition of the now defunct ISIS magazine, an article gave both a theological justification for their position and also photos of a Sinai Sufi cleric with a blade to his throat. They threatened Sufis in Egypt writing that their “blood is filthy and permissible to shed”.
Many Egyptians on social media have accused the country of failing to do enough to prevent extremism. Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious educational institution in the Sunni Muslim world, has been accused of “fanning the flames of extremism” by some.
Others have criticised the government and its President Abdel El-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military coup against the elected President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party, bringing a wave of Islamist attacks. According to critics, government repression and the targeting of those willing to work within the democratic political system has driven opposition away from peaceful means and towards violent extremism. Sinai has been under strict military rule with restricted access for journalists.
However, according to Samuel Tadros, an expert on Egyptian jihadism, this recent attack shows the lack of local cooperation with ISIS and many Sinai tribes have been working with the Egyptian army to defeat the ISIS insurgency.
The Egyptian Army has responded aggressively, with El- Sisi vowing “the utmost force” against militants and a series of airstrikes, reportedly killing ISIS fighters.
With the territorial collapse of the Islamic State across the region it is expected that ISIS will return to its insurgency phase, and atrocities such as this one will be repeated.