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Who, what and why of the Egypt mosque attack that saw more than 200 people massacred

More than 200 were killed in a horrific terror strike on a mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai region as the military kicked off a hunt for the attackers and responded with airstrikes at “terrorist” locations.

world Updated: Nov 25, 2017 16:21 IST
Rezaul Hasan Laskar
Rezaul Hasan Laskar
HIndustan Times, New Delhi
Egypt attack,Egypt,Islamic State
Injured people being evacuated from the scene of a militant attack on a mosque in Bir al-Abd in the northern Sinai Peninsula of Egypt on November 24, 2017. (AP Photo)

By any yardstick, the terror attack on a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai province, where militants affiliated to both al Qaeda and Islamic State are active, was brazen and brutal.

What we know so far

Dozens of militants travelling in four-wheel drive vehicles bombed al-Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abd town, about 200 km northeast of the capital Cairo, and then opened fire on the worshippers when they tried to flee. The attackers blocked nearby roads by blowing up vehicles and also targeted ambulances and rescue workers who rushed to the mosque.

At least 235 people were killed and 120 injured, making it the deadliest attack of its kind in Egypt’s history.

Who was behind the attack

Though there has been no claim of responsibility, the finger of suspicion has been pointed at the Islamic State-Sinai Province, a local affiliate of the terror network led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This group – earlier known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 – has claimed dozens of attacks, including the bombings of churches in Cairo and the downing of a MetroJet flight in 2015 that killed 224 people, most of them Russian tourists.

The Jund al-Islam, another group in the Sinai that is believed to have links with al-Qaeda and is opposed to the Islamic State, has issued a “statement of innocence”, saying it had no role in the attack on the mosque.

One reason for the attack being blamed on the Islamic State-Sinai Province is the target – al-Rawdah mosque was frequented by adherents of the more tolerant Sufi branch of Islam, whom the Islamic State describe as infidels and heretics who practice idolatry because of their custom of praying at shrines.

The Islamic State has targeted Sufis in several countries in an area ranging from the Middle East to Pakistan, where 83 people were killed in an attack on a Sufi shrine in Sindh province on February 16.

While Islamic State-affiliated groups in several other countries such as Libya and Algeria have suffered reverses in recent months, the group in the Sinai has retained its ability to strike almost at will largely because of the Egyptian government’s lack of control over the thinly populated peninsula that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Why have terrorists become stronger in the Sinai peninsula?

The chaos that followed the Arab Spring and the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, by the military in 2013 emboldened the Islamic extremists operating in the Sinai region. The Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was formed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011.

In 2014, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared an emergency in the Sinai after 33 soldiers were killed in a suicide attack and described the area as a “nesting ground for terrorism and terrorists”.

Options for the Egypt government

Shortly after President Sisi pledged to respond with “utmost force” in a televised address, combat jets targeted several locations in the region where the mosque is located.

But Egypt’s “scorched earth” strategy to go after militants and terrorists in the Sinai has been criticised by politicians and experts, who contend it leads to more violence. However, given the limited presence of the security forces and the government in the region, the president’s options are limited.

But Sisi received support from US President Donald Trump, who said on Saturday the world community cannot tolerate "barbaric terrorist" groups when he called the Egyptian president to offer condolences.

The international community, Trump said, “must strengthen its efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism in all its forms”.

First Published: Nov 25, 2017 15:50 IST