After the deadliest attack in Egypt’s recent history, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has vowed a strong response. But can his strategy succeed?
T he attackers struck during Friday prayer. After setting off explosives, they reportedly trapped worshippers in an ambush at a mosque, for 25 minutes shooting at those trying to flee. In the end, 305 people were left dead in the village of Bir al-Abed in northern Sinai, making this the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history. The incident has thrown up questions about the effectiveness of the government’s counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula.
No group had claimed responsibility as The World Weekly went to press, but the brazen attack on the al-Rawdah mosque is widely believed to be the work of a local Islamic State (IS) branch known as Wilayat Sinai. Witnesses and officials said the masked gunmen carried IS flags. The carnage not only stood out for its extraordinary high death toll, but the fact that extremist groups in Egypt have rarely targeted mosques. The country observed three days of mourning.
Many of the worshippers at the mosque in Bir al-Abed were said to be Sufis, adherents of a mystical form of Islam that hardliners consider to be heretics. While often portrayed as a sect, Sufism is “integral to mainstream Sunni Islam”, wrote HA Hellyer, an expert on Islam and Egyptian affairs. Sufi practices are widespread in Egypt.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unequivocally vowed a strong response. “The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force in the coming period,” he said after the attack. The union of the Sinai tribes issued a statement in which it vowed to eliminate militants in the peninsula.
The Sinai Peninsula has increasingly become synonymous with unrest since the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Violence levels reached new heights after Mr. Sisi removed then-President Mohammed Morsi from power on the back of mass protests. Whereas much of the Sinai remain inaccessible to the media, reports have noted civilian casualties over the years. Inhabitants of the vast territory bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip have long complained of discrimination and neglect.
Attacks by extremist groups, apart from IS also including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, have mainly focused on security forces in the Sinai. However, as was the case with al-Rawda mosque and attacks against Coptic Christians, local civilians have paid a heavy price in the war on terror.
Locals in Bir al-Abed told Egyptian media they had received threats from jihadis prior to the attack not to perform Sufi rituals. In late 2016, a local IS leader threatened to target al-Rawda and two other mosques in the group’s al-Naba weekly magazine. Months later, it posted a video which purportedly showed the beheading of two elderly Sufi men. In its statement, the Sinai tribal union said the village was targeted “in an act of revenge because its residents repeatedly had refused to be subordinated to the will of the militants in the area”.
“This attack sends a loud message throughout the local community that even Sunni Muslims praying inside a mosque are targets” if they do not submit to IS, Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist and author of a book on the Sinai, told The World Weekly.
The Egyptian state faces various security challenges in North Sinai, as militant groups have expanded their presence and smuggling networks remain active. Wilayat Sinai, said to be behind last Friday’s attack, had claimed responsibility for the previously deadliest attack, the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015 which killed 224 people.
Is ‘brute force’ alone the right response?
Hours after the deadly attack on November 24, the Egyptian air force launched airstrikes against militant hideouts in North Sinai. President Sisi had vowed to respond with “brute force”. Later in the week, he ordered the army’s new chief of staff to “secure and stabilise Sinai within the next three months”.
Accounts of the Cairo’s counterinsurgency campaign in Northern Sinai include accusations of summary executions, torture, and the destruction of whole villages. All this, whilst denied by the military, has hampered relations between the local population and the soldiers patrolling the peninsula. The government’s “scorched earth” policies in the Sinai can sow the “seeds for future radicalisation”, says Amr Kotb, advocacy director for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington DC.
Expected to win a second term in next year’s presidential election, Mr. Sisi, a former defence minister and head of the army, is likely to face increasing pressure to guarantee stability. Security issues are intricately linked to Egypt’s economic fortunes; tourist numbers have according to official numbers hit a two-year high in October, but are still well below levels seen before the 2011 uprising.
“This attack came as further confirmation that Egypt's counterterrorism strategy is failing to contain the terrorist activity in Sinai or accomplish long-lasting solutions,” says Mr. Sabry. The Egyptian army, observers point out, is better equipped for conventional warfare than a counter-insurgency against mobile forces in difficult terrain.
The weapons the government acquires from its international partners, such as M1A1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets, are “better suited for a conventional threat than the insurgency we are seeing in Sinai,” Mr. Kotb added.
To achieve success, Mr. Sabry argued, Cairo needed to “overhaul the entire military strategy in Sinai”, including the design of intelligence operations that incorporated the local community and were aided by highly trained tactical units. “The main reason why IS has been able to execute dozens of attacks on the military is its fixed encampments and checkpoints mostly in an open terrain, simply providing easy targets that are in many cases impossible to protect.”
In addition to economic development, many experts see the ideological dimension as crucial in the fight against extremism. Writing in the Guardian, Dr. Hellyer argued that incitement against Sufis, as practiced by IS, did not emerge out of a vacuum, as preachers influenced by Salafism “have been speaking against Sufism and Sufis for a very long time”. The notion that Sufism was instead of being integral to Islam, a rejection of it, he added, needed to be countered.
Egypt is by far not the only country in the Middle East and North Africa that has suffered from terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the al-Rawda massacre, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, called for increased cooperation between Muslim countries to fight extremism. Chairing a meeting of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed said the time “with no coordination… ends today, with this alliance”. Details were sparse, but officials said member states could request or offer each other assistance to fight extremists.
The summit also showcased some of the Middle East’s fault lines, as Iran, a key opponent of Riyadh, Iraq, Syria and Qatar were absent from the meeting. Iraq and Syria are among the countries that have suffered the most from terrorist attacks in recent years.
As Egypt steps up military action in the Sinai, “the local population, unfortunately, is stranded between the indiscriminate use of force by the military and the terrorist attacks,” says Mr. Sabry.