Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The bullets that silenced the chants

What really happened at the Al-Rawda Mosque in Sinai last Friday during one of the worst terrorist attacks ever to hit Egypt, asks Dina Ezzat 

Al-Rawda Massacre

It was supposedly a peaceful Friday noon in which mid-day Muslim prayers should have seen the beginning of week-long festivities marking the birth of the Prophet Mohamed on Friday.

Worshippers attending prayers at the Al-Rawda Mosque in Sinai (meaning “the heart of paradise” where the Prophet Mohamed should be, according to the Islamic creed) would have been particularly set for the launch of the al-moulid al-nabawi (the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed) given the predominantly Sufi affiliation of the residents of the Al-Rawda village 40km west of Arish in the northeast of the Sinai Peninsula.

However, a bloody attack on the worshippers by extremist Islamist militants killed 305 people and left 128 others wounded, mostly with grave injuries.

The accounts of the bloody attack vary on some of the details. The number of assailants, for example, according to witnesses ranged from 30 to 50, with some suggesting that they were not all Egyptians. Most of the witnesses spoke of the militants shooting all their victims, but some said that hand grenades were used. The length of the attack was said to be less than 15 minutes in some accounts and over 30 minutes in others.

There are, however, some things that are subject to agreement: this mosque has been, along with other Sufi spots in North Sinai, subject to threats from the Islamic State (IS) group that embraces a hardcore Wahhabi (ultra-orthodox Bedouin) version of Islam that declines to recognise the followers of Sufi orders as proper Muslims. The attack took place out of the ordinary area of attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, and the consequences of this brutal attack will be huge in social, security, political and economic terms.

“This is the bloodiest attack that has hit Sinai since the escalation of the violence of the Islamist militant groups in the peninsula. It left more victims than the Russian plane that exploded in the air over Sinai in October 2015 (and caused great damage to the Red Sea tourism industry),” said Mohamed Gomaa, a Sinai specialist at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) in Cairo. 

According to Ahmed Kamel, a Sinai security expert at ACPSS, the magnitude of the attack was unprecedented and so is its significance and possible consequences. What happened on Friday noon, Kamel said, has left everybody in Sinai and in the state apparatus with a new reality whereby IS has acted out its threat to attack a Sufi mosque.

“Al-Rawda is not the only Sufi mosque in Sinai because there is a traditionally strong Sufi presence in Sinai as a whole,” he said, and this could also be targeted. 

RADICALS IN SINAI: According to Hisham Hellyer, a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, what happened in Sinai on Friday noon was particularly shocking, but it might not have surprised the Al-Garir clan, an off-shoot of the Sawarka tribe of North Sinai, given the threats made by IS that prompted the residents of the village to block some roads leading to the mosque.

Hassan Al-Okaili, North Sinai coordinator for the Higher Council of the Tribes of Egypt, a civil society group, said that “there have been threats during the past few months, according to the testimonies of the families of the victims.” Speaking from Ismailia, about 60km to the west of the attack where the victims were being treated, Al-Okaili said that the victims were not strictly members of the Sufi-affiliated tribes in the village as “there were others in the mosque at the time.”

“This is a big mosque frequented by many people, not just the residents of the village where the attack took place,” he said.

Acknowledging what well-informed experts like Gomaa and Kamel suggest about the wish of IS to cause as much damage as possible in order to prompt general terror, Hellyer still cautions about what he says is a significant development regarding the targeting of Sufis. Islamist terrorist groups have been acting in Sinai “at least since 2010” and are now taking their violence a step further by conducting large-scale attacks against Sufis that they have already announced to be guilty of shirk, or apostasy, he said.

On 19 November 2016, almost a year before the Al-Rawda attack, IS kidnapped and killed the 97-year-old Sufi Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz in Sinai. Unlike the Salafi (ultra-orthodox) understanding of the Muslim religion, the Sufis have a more spiritual understanding that includes mystical performances and a deep association with what could be qualified as Sufi saints whose mausoleums have already been targeted and demolished by IS.

The groups claim that visits to their burial places are a sign of contesting the otherwise unshared divine nature of the Almighty.

This violence against Sufis might not have received adequate attention given the fact that 2016, according to the Strategic Report published by the ACPSS, was a violent year for North Sinai in which security conscripts and Copts in particular suffered many attacks. These continued to unfold throughout 2017, despite an ongoing state of emergency and a state-conducted eviction programme that was initiated in 2014 supposedly to spare the local residents possible terrorist attacks from militants filtering into Sinai through the Gaza Strip.

The ACPSS Strategic Report notes that the presence of IS in Sinai has been visible enough to allow the militants openly to threaten traders of tobacco and smugglers of alcohol and to kill members of the community that IS sees as police informants. This, the report says, has prompted direct, even if limited, confrontations between some tribal members and the terrorists.

Al-Rawda Massacre

TRIBES, STATE AND TERRORISTS: According to Salem Abu Ghazala, chair of the Higher Council of the Tribes of Egypt, for the most part “and notwithstanding the fact that some young men here and there have been reined in by the terrorist groups”, the leading figures of the tribes of Sinai have always been on the side of the state bodies that manage the peninsula.

Sinai was occupied by Israel during the 1967 War and was only fully returned to the control of Egypt after the 1979 Peace Treaty that allowed for the return of most of the peninsula before its full reclamation through a legal process that allowed former president Hosni Mubarak to raise the Egyptian flag over Sinai in the spring of 1981.

According to Kamel, since then the state has for the most part managed its relations with the peninsula through direct contacts between state intelligence, the military and security bodies, with the leaders of over 50 tribes.

Researchers who have worked on the social and ethnic topography of Sinai have produced accounts of the disappointments of some tribes about the management of the relationship on the side of the state. These have included statements by the leaders of some leading tribes who are otherwise fully cooperating with the security apparatus.

In the words of one leader who wanted to remain anonymous, “the leaders of the tribes, especially those in the north of Sinai, and certainly those close to the borders with Gaza or Israel, both in the north and south, often complain that the state looks at them as potential traitors and not fully-fledged Egyptians.”

Most recently, the same researcher said, there have been increasing complaints about incidents of rough treatment towards members of certain tribes thought to be somehow sympathetic to the ideas of the radical groups or to have deliberately withheld information.

Kamel argued that the situation is much more layered than any single narrative suggests. Acknowledging points of the unfortunate mismanagement of relations with some leaders of the Sinai tribes that might have eventually opened the door to sympathy for the militant groups by some members of these tribes, Kamel insisted that the main mistake that the state had committed in Sinai was “poor development that amounted under the 30-year rule of Mubarak to negligence. There are no two ways about it,” he said.

It was in the late 1990s and early years of the first decade of the 2000s, Kamel noted, that the presence of radical Islamist militant groups in Sinai was first seen as clustering. In 2004-2006, the Islamist militant groups conducted attacks that hit Taba, Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh in the prosperous south of the peninsula where there was a booming tourism industry at the time. This had occasioned considerable jealousy from the residents of North Sinai, which covers the north and the middle of the peninsula.  

“Following the weakness that hit the police in the weeks after the 25 January Revolution, these militant groups found an easier atmosphere in which to recruit and attack. At the time their obvious target was the gas pipelines that had been used by the Egyptian authorities to export natural gas to Israel,” Kamel said.

In 2011, there came the return of militants who had been sent to Afghanistan by the Egyptian authorities in the late 1970s to join the US-orchestrated assault on the Soviet military presence in this Asian country and the release of militants from Egypt’s Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and other militant groups that had acted against state targets and Copts during the 1980s and 1990s.

In Sinai, according to researchers and residents of Arish and Rafah who spoke on condition of anonymity, the presence of the militant groups was expanding and becoming more daring, while the authorities in Cairo, whether under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which lasted for a little over a year, or that of former president Mohamed Morsi, were consumed with intense political battles. 

“Then one day last year, we woke up and realised that we were living next door to IS, and we knew that they could come to the city and target people. There were not just militants or terrorists as they had been before, but members of IS,” said a resident of Arish who was visiting relatives in Cairo when the attack hit Al-Rawda.

“Of course it was not always IS from the start,” Kamel said. He explained that there were other groups whose association with external militant groups was not necessarily well established, at least not at the beginning. There was Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, for example, which was suspected to be in alliance with Al-Qaeda, and then Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which is suspected to be in association with IS.

According to Gomaa, there is now a battle between IS, which has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Al-Qaeda, which has already lost its supremacy to IS in winning new recruits in the eastern and western governorates of Egypt.

“I guess this is partially why the attack on Al-Rawda had to be so big and so shocking — you would not need to inflict such huge harm to deter Sufis from their practices, but you would need it to win over potential new recruits, either those who are now forced to leave Syria and Iraq and reposition themselves either in Libya or Egypt, or from the local communities in border governorates, especially in Sinai where IS has been trying hard over the past few years to establish itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, a high-level security source said that the battle between Al-Qaeda and IS over the local militant Islamist groups has been intensifying. “For the most part, it has been Al-Qaeda that has been trying to gain ground on the western borders, while IS has been trying to put down roots in Sinai, especially next to the border with Gaza, but this has been changing,” he explained.

According to Gomaa, the dynamics of the radical Islamist groups and their contested affiliations between Al-Qaeda and IS, on the one hand, and their ability to infiltrate the local tribes, both in the eastern and western borders, on the other, are loose.

“I think the security services are still working on figuring out the detailed map of these groups,” he said.



OTENTIAL TARGETS AND SCENARIOS: As the week was coming to an end, some of the injured from the Al-Rawda attack lost their battle for life. 

At the same time, tribal sources from North Sinai were talking of meetings that some figures from the leading tribes had been holding with security officials to discuss potential future targets and scenarios.

According to Abu Ghazala of the Higher Council of the Tribes of Egypt, it would be a big mistake to assume that “the next terrorist attack would have to target the security agencies, the Sufis or the Copts. This would be misleading because what the terrorists really want is not just to intimidate the tribes or to secure their silence for fear of revenge, but to take over Sinai, something that will never be allowed either by the state or the tribes.”

On Saturday, a group of tribal leaders acting under the banner of the Sinai Tribes Union issued a statement suggesting that they were planning to take things into their own hands to “eliminate” the presence of IS and other similar groups from North Sinai. 

A source close to the talks said that it would be a mistake to decide that the state had agreed to this line of action. “I don’t think it could work this way. I also don’t think that this is possible under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty — to create an armed militia” in Sinai.

An informed Cairo-based foreign diplomat said that while Israel had shown “considerable flexibility, essentially with support from the US, to allow the Egyptian authorities to exceed the treaty limitations on armaments in areas nearest to its borders, it would not contemplate creating a militia that could be partially or fully recruited by any militant group.”

Both Kamel and Gomaa were also sceptical about the scenario of “arming the tribes to fight the terrorist groups.” This, they agreed, would be extremely hazardous. “The state has a strict monopoly over the use of arms, and this is hard to compromise on,” Gomaa argued.

Kamel said that what the state needed to do was not to arm the leaders of the tribes, but rather to create twin security and development strategies for Sinai. “This is long overdue,” he said.

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