Militants Kill 235 in Attack on Sufi Mosque in Egypt

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The attack started midday during Friday Prayers when a bomb — mostly likely set off by a suicide bomber, according to security officials — ripped through Al Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, a small town 125 miles northeast of Cairo. As worshipers fled, they were confronted by gunmen who, witnesses said, had pulled up outside in a four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The gunmen lingered at the scene as emergency workers arrived to treat the wounded, opening fire on several ambulances, a government official said on state television.

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Mayna Nasser, 40, who was shot twice in the shoulder, drifted in and out of consciousness as he was rushed to a hospital. “My children were there, my children were there,” he said, according to Samy, a volunteer emergency medical worker who drove him there and who declined to give his last name.

Emergency services in Bir al-Abed were so overwhelmed that some of the wounded had to be transported to the hospital in the back of a cattle truck, he said.

Many were taken to the general hospital in the main northern Sinai town of El Arish, where medics described chaotic scenes as staff struggled to deal with a flood of dead and wounded. “They pretty much have bullets in every part of their bodies,” said one medical official, speaking by phone. Others had extensive burns or limbs lost from the explosion.

“We are swamped,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know what to say. This is insane.”

Mr. Sisi convened an emergency meeting of top security officials, including the interior minister, spy chief and defense minister. “The military and the police will take revenge,” he said in a televised speech.

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Until a spate of attacks on Christian churches this year, Egyptian militants had avoided large-scale assaults on Egyptian civilians, perhaps because such attacks tend to backfire. After a massacre in Luxor that killed 62 people, mostly tourists, in 1997, President Hosni Mubarak began a sweeping crackdown that crushed the Islamist insurgency centered in southern Egypt.

When a new insurgency flared in north Sinai after the military takeover in 2013, the extremists leading it were careful to focus their attacks on uniformed security forces. But as those militants embraced the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, they have gradually set aside that lesson.

An Islamist militia in Sinai called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and has since proved to be one of its most effective local affiliates. The group’s deadliest attack targeted a Russian jetliner that crashed shortly after takeoff from Sharm el Sheikh in October 2015, killing all 224 people on board.

In an interview published in an Islamic State magazine last January, a commander in Sinai outlined the group’s hatred for Sufis and their practices, including veneration of tombs, the sacrificial slaughter of animals and what he termed “sorcery and soothsaying.”

Photo
The worshipers at the mosque were Sufi Muslims, who practice a mystical form of Islam that some orthodox Muslims and Sunni extremists consider heretical.

Credit
European Pressphoto Agency

The interview, in English, specifies Rawda, the district where Friday’s attack occurred, as one of three areas where Sufis live in Sinai that the group intended to “eradicate.”

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It featured a photograph of a black hooded figure brandishing a sword over the kneeling figure of an elderly Sufi cleric, Sulayman Abu Hiraz, who was executed in Sinai in late 2016. The Islamic State said the cleric, said to be 100 years old, had been killed for practicing witchcraft.

Many residents of Bir al-Abed, on the main road through northern Sinai, are Bedouins from the Abu Greir tribe, which is predominantly Sufi. Residents said that despite recent Islamic State threats, the town had been largely peaceful.

The Islamic State, a Sunni movement, has long considered Sufis apostates, along with Shiite Muslims, and has a history of attacking their mosques in other countries. Sufis can be Sunni or Shiite but most are Sunni.

Since 2016, when the militant group released a video describing Sufism as a “disease,” it has claimed attacks that have killed at least 130 worshipers at Sufi shrines, most of them in Pakistan. Elsewhere, the Islamic State has made a spectacle of bulldozing Sufi shrines, describing their removal as a form of purifying the faith.

Egyptian security forces have also been closely monitoring returning Islamic State fighters from Syria and Iraq, amid worries that an influx of battle-hardened jihadis could insert a volatile new element into Egypt’s militant mix.

In October, Mr. Sisi ordered a major reshuffle of his security team after an ambush in the desert left at least 16 Egyptian security officials dead. That attack was later claimed by a previously unknown group called Ansar al-Islam, which is believed to have links to Al Qaeda.

The Egyptian authorities have been hoping to stem the tide of Islamist violence in Sinai through their sponsorship of a Palestinian peace initiative involving Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

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Islamic State militants have previously used tunnels into Gaza to source weapons and get medical treatment for wounded fighters. One benefit for Egypt of the peace initiative, which Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate has mediated, is greater control over those tunnels.

In a statement, Hamas denounced the attack as a “criminal explosion” that “violates all heavenly commandments and human values” because it attacked a mosque. “It is a grave challenge to Muslims worldwide,” the group said.

President Trump, writing on Twitter, denounced the attack as a “horrible and cowardly.” In a later tweet, he said the attack explains why the United States needs a border wall with Mexico and restrictions on immigration, which he referred to as “the ban.”

Follow Declan Walsh on Twitter: @declanwalsh.

Declan Walsh reported from Cairo, and Nour Youssef from Ismailia, Egypt. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London, Rukmini Callimachi from New York, and David M. Halbfinger from Jerusalem.


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