Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Competing terrors

The attack on Al-Rawda Mosque was not about targeting Sufis. A bigger game is being played, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Rawda Massacre
Al-Rawda Massacre

Terrorist attacks against Sufis in Sinai have increased in the last four years as groups such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Islamic State (IS) gained a foothold on the peninsula.

In 2012 takfiris blew up Sheikh Zuweid Shrine. In August 2013, after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis bombed two shrines belonging to Al-Garir family. After pledging allegiance to IS, jihadi Salafis assassinated three leading Sufi figures, including 97-year-old Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz. The execution aped those committed by IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya: the murderers shot a video of the victim, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, being slaughtered.

Now the 24 November terrorist attack on Al-Rawda Mosque, halfway between the cities of Bir Al-Abd and Arish in Northern Sinai, in which 305 died and 128 were injured, has once again brought the Salafis antagonism towards Sufism into the limelight.

Salafis believe Sufis are heretics because they visit shrines, something fundamental and jihadi Salafism regards as apostasy. Sufis also do not carry weapons and they have allied with the state in its fight against takfiri terrorists: reasons enough, say some commentators, for them to be targeted by terrorist groups. Other analysts, however, argue that the bloodiest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history, targeting a mosque packed with worshippers during Friday noon prayers, is about more than Salafi hatred of Sufism.

Mohamed Diban, a second-generation inhabitant of Bir Al-Abd told Al-Ahram Weekly that Sufis in Al-Rawda and Al-Mazar villages have been threatened repeatedly by jihadi Salafis. Al-Rawda, he said, was a focus for Sinai’s Sufis while Al-Mazarwas the site of the Al-Garir shrines. “But the Al-Rawda Mosque doesn’t just serve Sufis,” Diban stressed. “It is the only mosque in the village and serves all Muslims as well as travellers on the road who stop to pray in the mosque.” It would be wrong, he added, to assume the terrorists wanted to kill only Sufis.

“When the border zone around Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah was evacuated a large number of the displaced settled in Al-Rawda. We have counted 134 from Sheikh Zuweid, eight from Rafah and 11 from the valley area among the victims of Friday’s attack.”

Diban believes the attack was staged because the villagers had refused to allow terrorists to remain in Al-Rawda. 

“Our refusal to allow them to operate in the village explains the brutality of the attack and the large number of dead. For half an hour the elderly and children were mowed down alongside men who tried to escape the scene.”

“The attack should not be viewed through the narrow lens of animosity between Sufis and Salafis,” says Khaled Okasha, a member of the National Council for Combating Terrorism.

“The perpetrators are expanding their targets. When Christians and Sufis were being targeted their shrines and churches were attacked. Coptic figures and Sufi sheikhs were assassinated. Coptic families were forced to move from Sinai to Ismailia. In this recent attack the goal may be to similarly eliminate the Sufis. But the operation was an attempt to break Egypt and its people, not just the Sufi current.” 

The terrorists’ list of targets is becoming ever more diversified, says Okasha. It has already moved between Copts and army and police personnel. “When Copts were evacuated to Ismailia the terrorists claimed they had succeeded and the state failed. Friday’s attack was an invitation for fundamental Salafis to join the jihadis.”

Abu Bakr Al-Isnawi, an expert on Sufism, points out that the “Sufi presence in Sinai is weak and there is no such thing as an exclusively Sufi mosque in Sinai.” If the terrorists had wanted to single out Sufis for attack, he argues, they would have done so in an area where there is an extensive Sufi presence.

“IS is sending the message it kills those it brands as apostates,” says Ali Bakr, an expert on jihadi movements, “and in doing so hopes to encourage its sympathisers to carry out more such operations”.

“IS wants to be seen as the main group, in charge of the scene,” believes Mohamed Gomaa of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “This horrific attack was intended to show it is the strongest among the takfiri groups.”

“The appearance of Jund Al-Islam and Ansar Al-Islam, which operate in the Western Desert, has provoked a jihadi competition. Friday’s brutal attack was an attempt by IS to send the message that it is the leader of the pack.”

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