Bloody mosque attack opens new chapter in Egypt’s fight against terrorism
Cairo- The killing of at least 305 Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers at a mosque near the North Sinai city of al-Arish means that Egypt’s ongoing battle against various terrorist groups has entered a new stage, experts said.
“This is the first time the terrorists are targeting a house of worship belonging to the very religion they claim to be defending, namely Islam,” said Samir Ghattas, the head of local think-tank Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies. “There is also an apparent insistence on the part of the terrorists to kill the largest number of people, but not policemen or army personnel this time.”
Twenty-seven children were said to be among the victims of the November 24 bomb and gun attack on the al-Rawdah mosque in Bir al- Abed, a town 30km west of al-Arish.
After attacking the mosque, the terrorists stormed into nearby homes and killed those inside. They also fired on ambulances trying to rescue injured victims before fleeing into the desert.
The al-Rawda mosque reportedly hosted a large Sufi congregation, deemed to be heretical by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups.
However, most Egyptians attend Friday prayers at their closest mosque, with analysts saying the targeting of Friday prayers in this manner represented a major escalation.
“The attack is meant to send a message of fear to everybody living in Sinai,” said Hossam al-Rifai, a member of parliament from al- Arish. “The terrorists want to force us into total submission.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the terrorist attack matched previous ISIS attacks. The attackers were masked, wore military fatigues and carried black flags, according to one attack survivor.
ISIS terrorists have so far killed more than 400 civilians from al-Arish, including killing nine truck drivers recently for working for the army, al-Rifai said.
ISIS had previously targeted Sinai’s Christian community, causing many Christians to flee the peninsula. By targeting mosques, analysts said, the terrorists are opening a new and dangerous front and creating a major challenge for Egypt’s security forces. There are more than 130,000 mosques in Egypt, compared to just 2,900 churches.
“It is impossible for any police force, regardless of how big it is, to secure this huge number of mosques,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of the Political and Strategic Studies Centre, an Egyptian think-tank. “This is why there is an urgent need for reformulating security strategies to make it harder for terrorists to strike wherever they want whenever they want.”
In a national address after the attack, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced three days of national mourning and called for unity.
“What is happening is an attempt to stop us from our efforts in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force.”
Egyptians reacted with defiance following the attack, with calls on social media for volunteering in the army and a public show of force at the country’s mosques.
However, behind the rhetoric, there were many concerns, particularly given that an attack on a mosque represented an unprecedented escalation, with fears that soft targets such as public transport could be next.
“This is what the terrorists want to do: They want to make each of us feel insecure, wherever we are in this country,” al-Zunt said. “I believe they will not succeed because Egyptians cannot be easily intimidated.”