The Al-Rawdah Mosque Massacre

At least 305 worshippers were killed while attending Friday prayers at a North Sinai mosque, in a terror attack described as one of the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history

Outside Al-Rawdah Mosque after the attack (Photo: AP)

On November 24, 2017, gunmen attacked the Al-Rawdah mosque in Bir Al-Abed, which is affiliated with Sufi groups. Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, said that 305 people were killed, including 27 children, while 128 others were wounded. The attack is one of the deadliest in the country in recent years.           

The mosque belongs to a Sufi order – a mystical school of Islam whose followers revere saints and shrines, and practice rituals, like reciting poetry, dancing and singing as means to be closer to God.

No group has claimed responsibility for the terror attack. In 2016, ISIS fighters released images purportedly showing the execution of a 100-year-old Sufi religious leader, whom they accused of "witchcraft."

An ISIS propaganda outlet had previously published an interview with the commander of its "morality police" in Sinai who said their "first priority was to combat the manifestations of polytheism including Sufism." The attack came days before the annual celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Festivals are being held by Sufi-affiliated mosques around the country.

The Attack

On November 24, 2017, gunmen attacked the Al-Rawdah mosque during Friday prayers. Between 25 and 30 attackers in camouflage arrived at the mosque in four all-terrain vehicles carrying ISIS flags. A bomb ripped through the mosque, before the militants stationed themselves at the mosque’s main door and 12 windows and opened fire on the worshippers inside. The attackers also shot at people as they escaped the mosque and at the ambulances. The attackers had also set fire nearby seven vehicles belonging to the worshippers to try to block routes away from the mosque. More than 50 ambulances ferried casualties from the mosque, about 40km west of the city of El-Arish, to nearby hospitals.

The attackers chose an easy target because the mosque in Bir Al-Abed was outside the province's main cities. The attackers were keen on wanting a large number of victims, given that they were even shooting those who attempted to flee the mosque.

The Response of the Egyptian Government

President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi held an urgent meeting of the Security Committee, which includes the ministers of defense and interior and the head of the General Intelligence Service, to discuss the repercussions of the mosque incident and the security situation in Sinai in general. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has instructed the military and police to secure all religious sites in Sinai after the attack.

In a speech to the nation, el-Sisi promised vengeance. He said that the military and police "will avenge our martyrs" and will respond "using brute force against those fragments of terrorists" in the coming period to ensure stability and security.

El-Sisi said that Egypt is facing terrorism alone, on behalf of the region and the whole world, and said that events in Sinai are an attempt to "break our will," and to end Egypt’s efforts "to terminate the terrorist plan that is aiming to destroy what is left of the region. This evil terrorist attack will only make us more determined, solid, and strong to fight against terrorism," he said.

The president added that current events in Sinai are "a reflection of efforts in fighting terrorism," telling Egyptians to be sure that the country’s current fight is the "most honorable against the evil powers."

The Egyptian president’s office has announced a three-day mourning period and has ordered the construction of a mausoleum in memory of the people killed in the attack.

Egypt’s two religious authorities condemned the attack with statements issued from the Azhar mosque and the Orthodox Church of Egypt. The grand imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo condemned the attack as an "attempt to spread chaos."

"After targeting Christians, the turn for mosques have come," he said in a statement. "As if terrorism wants to unite Egyptians in deaths and chaos, nevertheless it will be defeated, and the will of Egyptians will prevail."

The Military Response

The Egyptian military is pursuing the gunmen in an operation that is led by the armed forces Chief of Staff.

Hours after the attack, Egypt’s military launched airstrikes on targets in areas around Bir al-Abed. The targets were described as vehicles used in the attack and "terrorist" locations where weapons and ammunition were stocked. In an official statement, army spokesperson Tamer El-Refaie said the air forces destroyed vehicles used by the terrorists to execute the attack and killed the elements inside.

Egyptian authorities also closed the recently opened Rafah border passage with Gaza after the attack, citing security concerns. 

The ISIS Attacks In Egypt

The Egyptian branch of ISIS, Wilayat al-Sinai (the governorate of Sinai), has carried out many of the deadly attacks in Egypt. Previous attacks in Sinai were mostly aimed at security forces and members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.

The group also carried out the previous deadliest attack in the region when it downed a Russian passenger jet carrying tourists back from the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015, killing 224 people.

Islamic militants have conducted two separate attacks on two North Sinai checkpoints early morning on January 9, 2017. Nine people were killed and 22 others injured. The attacks came only a few days after the Egyptian army said it had foiled a plot by militants to attack several North Sinai checkpoints.

In July 2017, at least 23 soldiers were killed when suicide car bombs hit two military checkpoints in North Sinai, an attack claimed by ISIS.

The jihadis have also targeted Sinai tribes working with the armed forces, branding them traitors for their cooperation.

Militants have tried to expand beyond the largely barren, Sinai Peninsula into Egypt’s heavily populated mainland, hitting Coptic Christian churches and pilgrims. In May 2017, gunmen attacked a Coptic group traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt, killing 29.

Summary

At least 305 worshippers were killed while attending Friday prayers at a North Sinai mosque in a terror attack described as one of the deadliest of its kind in Egypt’s modern history. The Egyptian army and police have been battling an entrenched Islamist insurgency for several years in North Sinai.

Egypt’s ongoing fight against terrorism in Sinai is taking a heavy toll in human life and on the state’s resources. The insurgency in Sinai has escalated after the army ousted former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Hundreds of civilians, soldiers and policemen have been killed or injured since.

Most of the attacks have been claimed by Sinai-based group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in November 2014. Most of the attacks have taken place in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The mosque attack is unique in several ways:

Previous attacks on religious institutions mainly targeted churches, and this is the first time militants attacked a mosque in Egypt, targeting civilians praying inside a mosque.

The attack on Al-Rawdah mosque targeted the followers of Sufism. The Sufis are considered by some jihadist groups as heretics.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but the extremist ISIS group has repeatedly declared that it views Sufis as heretics and vowed to rid Sinai, and Egypt, of them.

Egyptian security forces have so far killed over 1,200 militants in Sinai as part of the country's "war against terrorism," but despite the official narrative that claims the area is witnessing stability and that development projects are being worked on, the war against the Islamic insurgency is far from being over.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi said that Egypt is facing terrorism alone, on behalf of the region and the whole world, and said that events in Sinai are an attempt to "break our will," and to end Egypt’s efforts "to terminate the terrorist plan that is aiming to destroy what is left of the region." The international community should make more to support the war of Egypt against the Islamic terrorism.

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