By APD writer Wang Peng
Egypt’s air force has conducted air strikes against suspected terrorists after the country’s President vowed to “revenge” with the “utmost force” against those who killed at least 305 worshippers, including 27 children.
The bomb-and-gun attack occurred at a mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula last Friday. No one claimed responsibility for this deadliest attack in the modern history of the country although most people hold ISIS accountable.
What’s behind the biggest nightmare of Egypt? And what should be a long-term strategy to uproot the terrorism?
Who are the attackers?
By now, still no group or military organization claimed responsibility for the attack but most blamed the ISIS because the attack bears hallmarks of an ISIS attack.
Firstly, the mosque attacked belongs to the Sufism, a marginalized branch of Islam, compared with the mainstream Sunnis and Shiah. This mosque has long been regarded as the birthplace of Shaykh al-Al-Jarri, the Sufi cleric of Islam. Given the ideology of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) as the heresy, as well as the previous attacks against local Sufi believers that launched by ISIL, the anti-terrorist experts and international media generally suspect that attackers are likely to be connected with ISIL.
Secondly, tribes and people living in the area mostly support the Egyptian government and the military, and hence may also provoke hatred of extremist groups led by ISIL.
Thirdly, from the feasibility and operability, an organization that claims to be the “Sinai province of Islamic State” is indeed active in the province of North Sinai, Egypt. Its predecessor, the “Jerusalem Mujahideen” once announced its allegiance to the “Islamic State” in 2014. During the past three years, this group claimed to have made most of the attacks on the ground, including the shocking crisis of Russian Airbus-321 airplane on the Sinai Peninsula on 31 October 2015. In 2016, this organization also executed a local Sufi tribal elder.
Why in Sinai?
Sinai is neither safe nor peaceful in recent years.
In 2014, following a suicide bombing that killed 33 soldiers, Sisi declared a state of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula, describing it as a “nesting ground for terrorism and terrorists”.
The previous attacks in Sinai mostly targeted security forces and members of Egypt’s Coptic Christians minority. By contrast, mosques in North Sinai’s Sheikh Zuweid town have also been attacked.
As Timothy Kaldas, an anti-terrorism expert at Nile University in Cairo, told international media that this attack “fits the pattern of ISIS attacks”, because over the recent years ISIL (and its local branches) is more willing to target civilians, as we saw with a lot of attacks on the Egyptian-Christian community in the past year. For example, in 2016, ISIL fighters released pictures purporting to be of the execution of a 100-year-old Sufi religious leader, whom they accused of “witchcraft”.
However, this attack is strange to some extent that the target is not a church of the Egyptian-Christian community, but a Sufi mosque that also belong to Allah.
The mosque may also have been targeted because it followed a Sufi sect. Sufis are considered infidels by groups such as ISIL. In addition, it is also believed the Bir al-Abed mosque was an easy target because it was outside the province’s main cities.
What is more, considering the facts that Egypt has for years been battling an armed anti-government campaign in the rugged and thinly populated Sinai Peninsula, which has gained pace since the military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013, it could be regarded as a retaliation for tribes co-operating with the state in the crackdown on ISIL.
Especially during the past three years, the Egyptian government deployed a strategy called “scorched earth” to sweep the local terrorists and anti-government militants in Sinai. However, poor effect is criticized by both the Egyptian domestic media and the international society. As the experts emphasized, Sinai is a mountainous and less-developed desert area. So even with the best and toughest strategy, it is a difficult place to control and govern.
Since coming to power, Sisi has promised to crack down on armed groups, particularly in the Sinai and he spent three years devoting to this but it’s hard to say the crackdown is working.
Now an increasing number of Egyptians are worrying that more terrorists from Syria and Iraq may get into Egypt to pose bigger threats. Therefore, considering its safety conditions, Egypt’s future is not optimistic. The massacre made Sinai the crying place of Pharaoh.
Wang Peng is the Research Fellow at the Chahar Institute and China Institute of Fudan University.
(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)