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

Piecing together the Sinai massacre

A week after 305 worshippers were killed while attending Friday prayers at a mosque in North Sinai and the repercussions of the attack are slowly becoming clearer, writes Ahmed Eleiba


Al-Rawda Mosque
Al-Rawda Mosque

Egyptians should be celebrating the birth of Prophet Mohamed today but instead the nation is in mourning after 500 worshippers attending Friday prayers at Al-Rawda Mosque, located in the village of the same name in Northern Sinai, were targeted by 30 gunmen. The attack left 305 dead, 27 of them children, and 128 injured, the highest number of casualties from a single terrorist attack in Egypt.

While military and police personnel, often stationed at check points, were the targets of previous terrorist attacks in Sinai this time round the victims were unarmed civilians.

“We are still in shock following Friday’s terrorist attack on Al-Rawda village mosque,” Mohamed Salmi, a resident of Arish, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It was Friday prayer and the Al-Rawda Mosque is on the Arish-Qantara Road. Not only locals were praying but travellers and passers-by.”

While some commentators have argued the 24 November attack specifically targeted Sufis — many villagers of Al-Rawda are known to follow Sufi rites — other analysts argue the bloodiest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history is about far more than Salafi antagonism towards Sufism.

“No one could have predicted such a massacre though the terrorists had threatened the locals of Al-Rawda days before the attack and ordered them to stop performing Sufi rituals,” says Salmi. Earlier in the week worshippers were kidnapped from a nearby mosque, also known as a centre of Sufism, only to be released on the same day after being warned to stop practising their rituals.

The recent attack may have targeted Sufis — the followers of Islam’s mystic strain are considered apostates by hard-line Salafis — but the operation was really an attempt to break Egypt and its people, says Khaled Okasha, a member of the National Council for Combating Terrorism.

The military launched several raids in pursuit of terrorists in retaliation. The army spokesman has kept the public posted on the confrontations in a series of statements. The vehicles that took part in Friday’s attack have been destroyed and terrorist bases in the area bombed. On Monday it was reported that security forces had foiled two attacks against police facilities in the villages of Atef Al-Sadat and Gisr Al-Wadi.

The military spokesman has stressed that cooperation between the Armed Forces and local residents in Sinai is ongoing, particularly in the hotspots of Al-Hasana in central Sinai and in Sheikh Zuweid.

Elders of two Sinai tribes have issued official statements saying new initiatives against terrorist organisations in Sinai are being planned. In the aftermath of last week’s attack Sinai tribe spokesman Sheikh Abdel-Moneim Al-Refaai told the press: “Communications between the tribes and security agencies are in progress to reach a common vision over the role [the tribes] will play in the war against terrorism.”

Following the attack President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi vowed to use “brute force” in the war against terror. Analysts say the promise, issued following a meeting between the president and senior security officials, suggests military tactics in Sinai will be overhauled.

During preliminary investigations into the incident eyewitnesses told prosecution officials that men dressed in military uniforms, stationed at the windows and door of the mosque, began firing at worshippers just as the imam was about to ascend the pulpit to deliver the Friday sermon. The attackers were backed up by five off-road vehicles outside the mosque.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a resident of Bir Al-Abd, told the Weekly that ambulances which rushed to the scene were also targeted by the gunmen. A source in the emergency services in Sinai confirmed two rescue workers were killed and two injured in the attack.

Though no group had claimed responsibility by the time the Weekly went to press, Islamic State affiliate known as Sinai Province was initially thought to be the most likely perpetrator. The group did, however, claim responsibility for a separate terrorist attack on Monday leading some analysts to speculate that a new terrorist group has emerged.

The Federation of Sinai Tribes posted on its Facebook page what it claims is a radio broadcast it intercepted by an IS operative claiming responsibility for the attack. Security sources have so far been unable to confirm this and some analysts say the broadcast statement cannot be taken seriously. They point out that the person on the recording speaks a local Sinai dialect, that of the Sawarka tribe, Sinai’s largest and the tribe most affected by the mosque attack. Its members form the majority of the population of Al-Rawda village.

 “But by the same token,” says one security expert, “the largest tribe is likely to supply the largest number of local members of terrorist organisations.” He adds that though a majority of the tribe supports the army and its military operations that is no reason to discount the possibility of an intra-tribal rift.

Two weeks ago the Jund Al-Islam group claimed responsibility for an ambush in which four Sinai Province members were killed. “Jund Al-Islam also receives support from some Sawarka,” says the source. “It is possible the actual target of Friday’s attack were really tribal rivals though whoever planned it decided to present the attack as a conflict between Jihadist Salafism and Sufism.”

Al-Refaai points out that Tawfik Farij Ziyada, the founder of the IS affiliate in Sinai killed some time ago, and his successor Mohamed Farij also killed in clashes with the security forces, were from the Sawarka. The same is true of two of the IS affiliate’s leading commanders, Shadi Al-Manei and Kamal Allam.

Stressing tribal support for the army, Sheikh Al-Refaai called for “a Sinai Bedouin from each of the tribes in every armoured vehicle until we eliminate the murderous takfiris from the deserts and the mountains”.  

Such melodramatic rhetoric should not obscure the fact there is increasing talk of greater cooperation between security forces in Sinai and the peninsula’s tribes. The Sawarka, as the largest tribe and the one to have suffered most in the recent attack, may be at the forefront of this endeavour.

Security experts who have worked in Sinai are uncomfortable with the idea of arming tribesmen.

 “Security and intelligence cooperation is necessary and desirable. Previous experience shows Military Intelligence is proficient in managing this type of cooperation. But if this cooperation evolves into armed tribal participation in military operations it could open the door to terrorism of a different sort,” warns General Gamal Youssef, former deputy director of the General Intelligence.

“Today the government might arm them. Tomorrow those same weapons could be used in a confrontation with the state. It is a dangerous thing.”

Another security source points out that when limited military cooperation began in May with the Tarabin tribe it was quickly abandoned by the Bedouin after a tribal elder was assassinated by Sinai Province. Yet in the wake of last week’s attack the Tarabin issued a statement underlining their “readiness to cooperate with the army”.

Some have argued that, given the proliferation of arms in Sinai, the tribes do not need government weapons.

“Yes, they have arms,” says Youssef, “and they can use them in self-defence. Beyond this narrow context, however, arms must remain under control of the state.”

Nor, says Youssef, is any arrangement arming tribesmen likely to be publicised.

“All [intelligence] agencies in the world do it but no official will tell the press any force but the official army was involved in such and such a battle. And we should not overlook the experiences of Iraq and Syria, two countries that serve as reminders of the repercussions of arming what are essentially private militias.”

Okasha also cautions against including the tribes in operational equations beyond logistic and intelligence cooperation. “Some people have begun to circulate the idea of a Sinai version of the Peshmerga. But we are all aware of the potential disruption this could cause in the long term,” he says.

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