Over 230 killed in suspected Islamist attack on Egyptian mosque

North Sinai attack is first large jihadi assault on Muslims in the north African state

People walk outside a mosque that was attacked in the northern city of Arish, Sinai Peninsula in Egypt on Friday. Photograph: EPA

People walk outside a mosque that was attacked in the northern city of Arish, Sinai Peninsula in Egypt on Friday. Photograph: EPA

 

Suspected Islamist militants killed more than 230 people and wounded more than 100 others in a bomb and gun attack on a mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai region during Friday prayers, the state television said.

The assault on the al-Rawdah mosque was the deadliest militant attack against an Egyptian target and first large jihadi assault on Muslims in the north African state.

The attackers drove up to the mosque in four off-road vehicles, detonated a bomb and then shot escaping worshippers, news agencies said. About 40 gunmen, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades, were involved in the attack, Reuters said.

The website of Al-Ahram, a state-owned Egyptian newspaper, reported that witnesses said improvised explosive devices were also used. It quoted health officials saying 30 ambulances were dispatched to the scene, some of which were targeted by the gunmen as they ferried the wounded to hospitals.

Photographs on social media show bloodied bodies on the floor of the mosque.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack. But Islamic State fighters have been active in the northern Sinai, where they have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers. The militants have also targeted members of the Coptic community, prompting a Christian exodus from the region.

Egypt lacks the Sunni-Shia divide that Islamic State, also known as Isis, and other militant groups have exploited in countries such as Iraq where attacks on mosques by extremists from rival sects are frequent. Egyptian Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Sufis in region

The mosque is in Bir al-Abed, about 40km west of the North Sinai port of Arish, in an area that has seen relatively little violence, unlike the eastern parts that border Gaza, the Palestinian strip, and Israel. It was used by Sufis, members of a mystical form of Islam that Isis accuses of practising heresy and has targeted before.

Millions of Egyptian are members of Sufi orders that form part of the Islamic tradition in the country.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi convened an emergency security meeting and his government declared three days of mourning. Mr Sisi promised that the attack “would not go unpunished”.

“Justice will be served against all those who participated, contributed, supported, funded, or instigated this cowardly attack,” he said in a statement.

A former army chief who came to power after a popularly backed 2013 coup toppled an Islamist president, Mr Sisi has previously vowed to defeat the militants. But attacks by extremist groups have increased.

US president Donald Trump called the attack on the mosque a “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack” in a post on Twitter.

Church bombings

Isis assaults in the north African state have been largely confined to the northern Sinai, although cells loyal to the group have occasionally been able to strike in mainland Egypt. They killed dozens of Christians in church bombings earlier this year.

The jihadi group has occasionally assassinated Muslim civilians in northern Sinai, but usually because it suspected them of being informers for the security forces.

Last month an al-Qaeda-linked group in the Western Desert killed at least 16 police officers in an ambush. The authorities hunted down the group, killed several of its members and freed a police officer who had been kidnapped.

Militant violence has damaged the country’s vital tourism industry, which took a heavy blow in 2015 after an Isis bomb planted aboard a Russian tourist airliner that took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in South Sinai exploded in the air, killing all 224 passengers and crew. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017