by Catherine Brewer ’20
The death toll hovers at 305, including 27 children, three days after Egypt’s worst modern massacre occurred on Friday, November 24 during the al-Rawdah Sufi mosque’s midday prayer. An additional 128 were injured at the place of worship in Bir al-Abed, located on the Sinai Peninsula.
According to an official statement from Egypt’s state prosecutor, approximately 25 to 30 armed men carried out the attack using bombs and automatic machine guns. They unloaded from five SUVs and arranged themselves in front of the mosque dressed in military uniforms. One eyewitness recalls a distinction amongst the men, stating that some wore masks and spoke Bedouin, while others with long hair and beards showed their faces and had Cairo accents.
Ibrahim Ergany, the chief of the Union of Sinai Tribes, stated, “The massacre that was carried out against the residents of al-Rawdah village will turn into a burning fire that will eliminate [the Islamic State].” The Union is a group that represents the three biggest Bedouin clans in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
While no groups have claimed responsibility for the act, Egypt’s official statement also noted that at least one Islamic State, also known as ISIS, flag was carried into the mosque during the attack. Additionally, CNN asserted that the massacre “bears the hallmarks of a strike by ISIS,” as the terrorist group’s affiliate, called Sinai Province or Wilayat Sinai, continues to be present in the area. British scholar Dr. H.A. Hellyer told CNN that he believes that ISIS will never take ownership of the attack, adding that many ISIS supporters have responded to it online with “shock” and “horror.”
If the al-Rawdah massacre was carried out by Wilayat Sinai, it will be the group’s first attack against a mosque. According to CNN, Wilayat Sinai has instead been known to target northeastern Sinai law enforcement. USA Today reports that Wilayat Sinai is relatively new—only six years old. The group has also claimed responsibility for an attack on a Coptic cathedral in Cairo within the past year. Hellyer asserted, “With the Christian attacks, it seemed aimed at creating some sort of divide within Egyptian society the radical groups could then take advantage of. They failed. Now they’re going after anybody that doesn’t support what they want to do.”
One reason why the al-Rawdah mosque may have been a target for Wilayat Sinai is because it is associated with Jaririya, the Sufi order of the region. “Sufis are Islamic mystics and have traditionally shunned violence,” CNN reports. “ISIS considers Sufis to be heretics, and in Syria and Iraq, they have destroyed Sufi shrines and bulldozed or dynamited the tombs of Sufi saints.”
The conflict between the two groups has persisted for some time. Before the Friday massacre, the Sufi peoples of Bir al-Abed had received threats from the ISIS faction on five different occasions, refusing demands that they stop the Sufi worship practices. The attack may have also been ISIS’s revenge for local Sawarkah tribe cooperation with the Egyptian government.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi promised that the government would respond to the attack with “brute force.” As a result, the Egyptian military conducted airstrikes on the locations that they suspected the terror group retreated to. “The airstrikes destroyed hideouts containing weapons, ammunition and explosive material, and law enforcement personnel followed up by combing through the bombed-out areas,” USA Today reported. Sisi also declared three days of national mourning, the construction of a memorial for those who were killed in the attack, and government payouts of $11,000 to every family who lost a loved one.
On the religious front, Ahmed El-Tayyeb, the current grand imam of Al-Azhar, denounced the attack, stating, “The shedding of blood, the violation of the sacred houses of God and the terrorizing of worshippers are acts of corruption on the earth.”