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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The “Black Friday” Massacre in the Sinai Mosque

Filed under: Egypt, ISIS, Radical Islam, Terrorism

The “Black Friday” Massacre in the Sinai Mosque
The “Black Friday” massacre in the Al Rawdah mosque in Sinai (al Masri al Youm)

The Islamic State is responsible for the massacre at the Sufi mosque in northern Sinai on November 24, 2017, which marks the first time it has committed a mass-casualty attack on Muslim civilians in Egypt.

The Egyptian army launched a new campaign against the terror organizations in Sinai, but it suffers from a lack of quality intelligence, which hampers its war on terror.

The horrendous terror attack on the mosque in the village of Al-Rawdah in the El-Arish area of northern Sinai killed 305 civilians, including 27 children, and wounded 128 other civilians. The attack is further proof that the Islamic State, though indeed defeated in Iraq and Syria, continues its terror activity in other parts of the world. The group wants to demonstrate that it continues to exist and remains devoted to its goal of creating an Islamic caliphate through violence and terror. 

Draining the swamp of Islamic State terror is a very difficult task. Over the past four years, President Sisi’s government has had to face a large and ongoing terror onslaught by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Egyptian security officials say they have clear evidence that this onslaught is financially and logistically supported by Qatar and Turkey, making it difficult for Egypt to defeat it.

A few days ago Egypt announced, together with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, that it is adding to a list of terror organizations the International Union of Muslim Scholars—headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt maintains that this body, financed by Qatar, is the ideological hub of support for terror organizations like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has declared a heightened alert throughout the country. Fearing attacks, it will station additional security forces at sensitive facilities. President Sisi has proclaimed a mourning period of three days for those killed in the mosque attack and promises a severe retaliation.

This was the largest and most savage terror attack in Egypt’s history. Egyptian security circles believe that the branch of the Islamic State called Wilayat Sinai (Sinai District) was behind it even though it has not officially announced responsibility.

The Egyptian army launched a wide-ranging military effort to find the terrorists who carried out the massacre at the Al-Rawdah mosque. Egyptian army spokesmen reported that the air force had attacked vehicles of terrorists, some of whom had taken part in the attack, and killed 45 terrorists in northern Sinai.  

The Struggle between the Islamic State and the Sufis

Residents of the Al-Rawdah village said the terror attack on the mosque began during Friday prayers a short time before the sermon. Explosions ripped through the mosque, and hundreds of worshippers were then shot at from close range for 10 to 20 minutes. Some 25 to 30 terrorists fired with automatic weapons after arriving at the mosque in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The residents say the mosque was attacked because it is a Sufi place of worship; Al Qaeda and the Islamic State regard Sufi Muslims as heretics. In addition, the terror organizations operating in the Sinai Peninsula view residents of the village who belong to the Al-Sawarka Bedouin tribe as collaborators with the Egyptian police and army.

Sufism is a mystical trend in Islam that deals, among other things, with the doctrine of the “hidden.” The Al-Rawdah mosque belongs to the Sufi stream, and the Islamic State had made threats to attack it. However, no special security measures were taken there. 

The mosque itself was established by the Sufi Sheikh Eid Abu Jarir, founder of the Sufi community in the Sinai Peninsula. About 90 percent of those living in the Al-Rawdah village are Sufis, and they have good relations with the Egyptian security establishment.

As noted, the Islamic State sees the Sufis as heretics against Islam. In 2013 Islamic State terrorists blew up both the tomb of the Sufi Sheikh Salim Abu Jarir in the village of Mazar and the tomb of Sheikh Hamid in the Al-Mughara region, both of which are located in Sinai.

In November 2016, Islamic State terrorists murdered 90-year-old Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Haraz, the senior figure among the Sufi sheikhs in Sinai.

Where Are Things Headed?

The attack on the Al-Rawdah mosque is the first test for the new Egyptian chief of staff, Field Marshall Muhammad Farid Hegazy, who recently toured Sinai upon assuming the post.

The Islamic State branch in northern Sinai has changed its tactics and extended its activity to new regions. It has distanced itself from the areas of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, where there are large Egyptian army deployments and begun to operate in the relatively quiet Bir al-Abed region with its large Sufi population. The Islamic State branch has shifted from attacks on military and police targets in northern Sinai to the mass killing of civilians who support the Egyptian security forces in the war on terror. 

The massacre at the mosque indicates that the Islamic State terrorists are no longer settling for attacks on Coptic churches and have decided to strike Islamic places of worship as well.

The Lawless Sinai

The Egyptian army suffers from a difficult problem securing quality intelligence, hampering its war on terror in Sinai. The terror organizations there, which number 2,000 to 3,000 operatives, can merge into the population. They enjoy financial support and a regular supply of weapons that, according to Egyptian intelligence, comes from Qatar.

The Islamic State is continuing to pursue its strategy of destabilizing Egypt and wearing down its security forces.

Egypt’s security establishment believes that the Islamic State branch in Sinai was recently reinforced by terrorists fleeing from Iraq and Syria in the wake of the organization’s defeat there.

The terrorists coming from Iraq have experience in attacking mosques, having blown up Shiite mosques there.

One of the goals of the Islamic State branch in Sinai is to cause a mass flight of the residents of northern Sinai. In the past, President Sisi rejected a proposal of the top military brass to evacuate the civilians from northern Sinai and make it easier for the military to fight the terror nests.

Egyptian officials believe that the Sufis in Sinai will now join the large Al-Tarabin Bedouin tribe. This tribe is a member of the Jund al-Islam organization in Sinai, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Recently Jund al-Islam broke off from the Islamic State branch in Sinai and began to carry out attacks against it.

Vehicles and arms provided to the Sinai Bedouins by the Egyptian army
Vehicles and arms provided to the Sinai Bedouins by the Egyptian army (Sinai Tribes, Daily News Egypt)

The Sufis’ desire to take revenge against the Islamic State for the mosque massacre appears likely to intensify the clashes in northern Sinai between the different armed groups, including the Bedouin tribes and the Islamic State branch in Sinai.