TSC IntelBrief: A Massacre In Egypt
Bottom Line Up Front
• On November 24, at least 305 people were murdered in a complex assault on the Al Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, Egypt, including 27 children.
• The assault on predominantly Sufi worshippers at the Sinai mosque is the worst terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history.
• The complex nature of the attack and the target group suggest the so-called Islamic State is responsible, though no organization has claimed credit.
• Egypt is facing a resurgence of terrorism, especially in the Sinai, that surpasses a brutal terrorist campaign in the 1990’s and previous terror spikes.
For several years now, Egypt has been struggling to counter an escalating challenge from terrorist groups active in several parts of the country. On November 24, a complex assault on the predominantly Sufi Al Radwa mosque in the North Sinai town of Bir al-Abed killed at least 305 people, including 27 children, making it the deadliest terror attack in modern Egyptian history. The assault involved as many as twenty-five to thirty masked gunmen and possibly at least one suicide bomber, with nearby vehicles set on fire to block roads and hinder rescue efforts. Egypt has seen many terror attacks but not of this scale and complexity, and it is extremely unusual for worshippers at a mosque be targeted.
While the risks of counterproductive counterterrorism operations that violate human rights are real, so is the entrenched terrorist threat facing the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt’s security forces must apply targeted policing to a terror group that is essentially a military force in the Sinai; most countries, including the U.S. and other western democracies, struggle to balance reaction and overreaction when faced with far less dire threats. Since the 1997 Luxor terror attack that killed 67 people—mostly foreign tourists—Egyptian terrorist groups have mostly targeted the country’s military, police, and government officials. By focusing on official targets, terror groups hoped to escape a backlash that crushed local economies while boosting claims that their fight was for local people and against the government. The emergence of the so-called Islamic State in the long-restive Sinai over the last several years changed that targeting equation. Local terror groups now embrace the Islamic State’s strategy of killing as many people as they can in the most horrific fashion possible, in order to advance their brand.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the Islamic State’s wilayat (province or state) in the Sinai, murdered 224 people when it blew up a Russian civilian airliner in mid-flight in 2015. Islamic State-affiliated cells also murdered 28 worshipers at a Coptic church in Cairo in December 2016; two other attacks killed 45 worshipers at two churches—in Alexandria and Tanta—in 2017. These attacks showed that the rules of terror in Egypt had changed. Terrorist groups were not seeking local support in an insurgency so much as seeking to kill as many people as possible in the name of the Islamic State. The scale of the November 24 attack is far beyond previous attacks, and will likely prompt an equally large response from the el-Sisi government. Following the 1997 Luxor attacks, government security forces used large-scale military and police sweeps to destroy terrorist networks. They will likely try to do so again.
Much like the Mubarak regime swept away by the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in 2011, the el-Sisi regime is authoritarian in nature and will continue to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of security. Egypt has been under some form of emergency rule for all but a few years since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Egypt finds itself caught between the need to respond to terrorism—not just the perception of terrorism but actual terrorism—while not making matters worse by overreacting, with further crackdowns on civil liberties and any political alternatives that remain. This latest attack targeted Sufi Muslims who Islamic State fanatics consider infidels; much as they do members of any group other than their own. Previous Islamic State attacks have targeted Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, which is facing a near existential threat in the country as a result. The Islamic State’s propaganda asserts that it hopes to ignite a sectarian war, similar to the war they inflamed in Iraq, to justify its existence. Egypt is now facing the challenge of countering a very real military terror threat, that to be overcome, must deny the Islamic State its very reason for being.
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