The attack on the al-Rawda mosque on the 24th November was an exercise in brutality so severe that its shockwave was felt globally against the backdrop of terrorist noise emanating from the Middle-East and North Africa. International condemnation was swift, as would be expected when 311 people are murdered and hundreds more injured in a place of prayer. It is an international norm that places of worship are treated as sacrosanct yet also a norm that they are attacked. The violence was also up close and personal: an estimated forty gunmen followed up the initial suicide bomb and went about their bloody business. While it should be the case that each and every life lost to violence counts the casualty count makes the attack at al-Rawda the seventh most deadly terrorist attack in recorded history. The only attack in 2017 more severe took place in Mogadishu when a truck bomb killed 512 people and injured 316. No claim of responsibility has been made so far for the al-Rawda attack but the finger of blame has been pointed firmly in the direction of the Sinai Province, ISIS’s Egyptian Wilayat. Egypt responded to the attack in characteristic fashion by launching airstrikes against suspected insurgent training camps.
The main reason for attribution of blame to Sinai Province is the target: a Sufi mosque. Sufi’s are seen as a legitimate target as Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that seeks to get closer to God through the worship of saints and shrines. To the ultra-conservative Sunni’s of ISIS this amounts to apostasy as it is behaviour that is idolatrous, marking them out for attack alongside Egypt’s Coptic Christian’s who have also been targeted in large attacks twice in 2017. This is part of a trend, which can be reduced down to anyone who does not follow the Sunni faith, as the Yazidi’s and Shia’s of Iraq can testify, and the Sunni’s whom fail to measure up to the strict criteria set by ISIS or accept their rule when they take control of an area. If this smacks of totalitarianism then that is because it is fundamentally totalitarian in nature and is the reason why the self-declared Islamic State caliphate was so comprehensively condemned and crushed.
Sinai Province is not, however, the root cause of the turmoil besetting the Sinai region or Egypt in general but is instead a symptom of a wider problem. Islamist movements, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, have been present throughout modern Egypt’s history and the state has cracked down severely on both political and insurgent activity. In 2012, after the deposing of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it was a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who won the Presidential elections. He was removed from power by the Army after a brutal crackdown on protestors and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned. While the Brotherhood went through a period of violent uprising in its history it had also been comprehensively crushed and by the time of the Arab Spring was a distinctly political Islamist party. Its banning had the effect of crippling Islamist political representation in Egypt. Violent extremism is nothing new in Egypt, but the rise of a new group, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, in the Sinai took place in 2011 during Egypt’s political turmoil and its operations increased in 2013 after the Army coup, with a shift to the targeting of the Egyptian military. In 2014 it sought support from ISIS and became the Egyptian Wilayat for ISIS. While Ansar Bait al-Maqdis emerged from other Salafi-Jihadist groups in the Sinai and had a strong Bedouin component, the current incarnation as Sinai Province includes foreign fighters. In effect, regional discontent towards the government has allowed the entry of ISIS into the Sinai as a major force and has turned the Sinai Peninsula into a frontline battleground between the Egyptian military and ISIS. The turmoil has become so pronounced that tribes within the region are considering taking the fight to ISIS themselves. Despite two major military campaigns the militants are still able to mount attacks such as that at al-Rawda.
For the present and in the near future we can expect an escalation by the Egyptian military with help from outside powers to defeat the extremism in Sinai and the rest of Egypt. For an idea of what this may look like then think of Marawi, Ramadi and Sirte, which are examples of other cases where heavy handed governance has provoked an insurgency that is then seized on by the jihadists. The Sinai Province group will go the way of ISIS but, as is the case in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, defeating the extremists is one thing while setting the conditions for sustainable peace and preventing another group rising to the fore is another. It is also part of a wider trend in the Middle-East and North Africa. While there is clearly a dearth of effective political representation across the region and the legitimacy of the state is constantly under challenge, there is little doubt as to what the extremists who have hijacked the political situation bring to the table: outright terror. Terrorism is a contested term. The murder of 311 people in a mosque is a glaring example of what it actually looks like.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator