The terrorist attack on a Sufi mosque in Northern Sinai marked the deadliest attack on the country’s soil, as well as the first major attack committed by militants on a Muslim congregation. As of now, the death toll has risen to 305 in a town of only 800. Of those killed, 27 were children. Gunfire and explosions injured another 128 worshipers.
According to surviving witnesses, 25 to 30 men arrived in trucks carrying automatic machine guns and suicide bombs. The men positioned themselves outside the main entrance of the mosque and along 12 windows of the mosque. After setting off a suicide bomb in an adjacent building, they proceeded to open fire on those fleeing the mosque before entering and firing from inside.
The militants also set up ambush sites where they opened fire on ambulances transporting the wounded. Under fire, some ambulances were forced to turn away, unable to reach the wounded until security forces cleared the area.
Witnesses described some of the men as masked, others with beards and long hair. All were wearing camouflaged military clothing and shouting, “Allahu Akbar”, or God is Great, (typically a peaceful phrase among Muslims, but perverted by extremists) as they shot into the crowd. At least one man is said to have entered holding an ISIS flag.
President Abdel Fattah el Sisi responded to the attack with a statement in which he promised swift and forceful military action.
“We will respond to this act with brute force against these terrorists,” he said. “This terrorist act will strengthen our resolve, steadfastness and will to stand up to, resist and battle against terrorism.”
Additionally, in a tweet responding to the attack, President Trump called it “tragic” and reinstated his belief that the United States tougher on terrorism.
The Egyptian Air Force conducted several airstrikes following the attack. The airstrikes targeted terrorist outposts containing weapons and ammunition, as well as vehicles suspected to have been part of the attack.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on the mosque. However, similar attacks in recent months point to ISIS affiliate groups who have taken a foothold in the Northern Sinai Peninsula.
Earlier in the year, Sisi voiced his concern that the influx of ISIS militants fleeing Iraq and Syria would come to Egypt. Egyptian security forces face daily attacks from ISIS militants in the Northern Sinai region. Since last April, Egypt has been in a state of emergency due to these attacks.
One extremist group in particular, referred to as Wilayat Province, is responsible for hundreds of attacks and deaths since its pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. This ISIS affiliate group has a history of targeting Sufis.
Sufism, the main practice of those in the region of Bir a Abed, is a mystic branch of Islam which believes in special spiritual guides who help others grow closer to God. Interpreting Sufis as polytheistic, Jihadists consider Sufism to be heretical.
This could be a possible motivation for the attack as well as the association between Sufists and the Sawarkah tribe. The Sawarkah tribe has been working with the Egyptian government against ISIS affiliate groups such as Wilayat Province.
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt condemned the actions of these men in a statement released after the attack.
“The shedding of blood, the violation of the sacred houses of God and the terrorizing of worshippers are acts of corruption on the earth,” Al-Azhar said.
Following the attack, three days of mourning were declared in Egypt. President Sisi has also ordered a mausoleum to be built in memorium for the lives lost at the mosque.