The dead include 27 children. There are 128 wounded. The mosque attack is the first of its kind and the deadliest in the history of modern Egypt. More attacks are feared. It is impossible to protect all mosques. The goal is to weaken the government ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Survivors tell their stories. Gunmen shot at people fleeing.
Cairo (AsiaNews) – The last group of victims was buried on Sunday. Local authorities issued 309 death certificates for the families of the victims, a first in the history of Egypt. The death toll includes 27 children, whilst the number of wounded reached 128, distributed in six hospitals in northern Egypt and Cairo.
Friday’s carnage in the Sinai Peninsula is the first of its kind since Islamist President Mohamad Morsi was removed from office in July 2013. It could happen again, given the large number of mosques filled with millions of believers for Friday prayers.
"It is impossible to avoid this kind of attack because it is almost impossible for police forces to secure the mosques,” said Hani Al-Aassar, a national security specialist at the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies. The latter “have become easy targets for terrorists. The aim of this type of operation is to turn the war on terror into chaos and allow all elements of society to enter the battle so that it can become a civil war. Thus, the state will no longer be able to fight terrorism and any collaboration by citizens with the security forces will be punished by the Islamic State."
For Ahmad Zaghloul, a researcher specialising in Islamist groups, deadly attacks like the one against the Sinai mosque have already taken place in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Africa by the terrorist group Boko Haram. "I think that the carnage of the Al-Radwa mosque is the work of the Wilayah Sīnāʼ (Sinai Province), the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State group, because Al-Qaeda has always opted against attacking mosques."
Finally, researcher Samir Ramzi believes that terrorists will expand the range of possible targets to include Sunni civilians. "They will possibly target gatherings of people, regardless of religion, especially with the approach of the presidential elections in 2018. They will be smart to pick unusual targets, other than churches and security points to weaken the state."
As experts express their views, witnesses, wounded but able to speak about what exactly happened, are starting to tell their stories.
"As soon as I went up to the pulpit to say the sermon I had prepared for the Friday prayer, the grenades exploded,” said Abdel-Fattah Rezeik, imam of the mosque that was attacked. “Of course, that stopped me. There was chaos everywhere. I fell to the ground because the body of worshipper fell on me. The terrorists thought I was dead. Those who managed to get out of one of the three doors of the mosque were gunned down by automatic weapons."
The military’s reply was quick. The Interior Ministry declared the highest level of alert in all governorates and air strikes were carried out in northern and central Sinai Peninsula, killing 45 terrorists.
To recapitulate, last Friday, during the usual prayers, masked terrorists attacked the Al-Rawda mosque in Bir Al-Abd, a village west of Al-Arīsh, in the north of the Sinai Peninsula, with explosives and automatic weapons, killing 309, including 27 children, and wounding 128 others. The victims included soldiers and Sufis.
No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the carnage, but observers believe that it is probably the work of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province (Arabic: ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām – Wilayah Sīnāʼ)
Since Islamist President Mohamad Morsi was ousted in 2013, Egypt has been the scene of attacks by Islamist groups against the security forces in several parts of the country, especially in northern Sinai, where the Islamic State group is particularly active.
Behind the scenes of the attack and revelations
• The terrorists shouted Allāhu akbar (God is [the] greatest), as children screamed in fear.
• No Egyptian broadcaster cited messages of condolence sent to the authorities by Pope Francis, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Egypt. For an Egyptian Catholic journalist, this is a significant fact.
• Three hundred and nine deaths are the second highest death toll in a terrorist act, worldwide as well, after the events of September 11 in the United States.
• This is the highest death toll in the history of modern Egypt. The explosion of the Russian airplane over the Sinai killed 224. The Assiut attack in 1981 left 118 people dead, the Sharm Al-Sheikh explosions of 2005 killed 88, whilst the Luxor attack in 1997 saw 62 tourists killed.
• All the witnesses described the attackers in the same way: very young, wearing military trousers and black t-shirts, hooded, long hair and bushy beards. Two of them carried black flags with “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God” written on them.
• Other witnesses said that the attackers surrounded the mosque with 4x4 vehicles and threw bombs inside the building. After they exploded, the gunmen shot at the panicked worshippers trying to flee and set fire to their cars to block the streets leading to the mosque.
• The attacked mosque belongs to the Sufi community (a moderate spiritual Islamic movement to which approximately 60 per cent of the Egyptian population belongs, but are considered heretical by the Islamic State). In 2016, the latter beheaded one of the greatest Sufi spiritual leaders – he was 98 years old.
• According to the Islamic State security chief, Sufis are dangerous because of their rituals and close collaboration with the Egyptian security forces.
• During the funeral of most of the victims on Saturday, during the midday prayer, bells tolled in every Egyptian church.
• The border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which was set to reopen on Saturday, will remain closed until further notice, a Palestinian official said on Friday.
• Clean-up and repairs at the mosque are currently underway. Prominent Egyptians plan to pray at the mosque next Friday as a sign of solidarity.
• A mother lost her husband and three children in this massacre.
Today, everyone accuses others of being apostate. We shall not finish with such accusations.
Khaled Montasser, doctor and secular thinker
We condemn this crime and ask for heavenly mercy on behalf of our dead brothers and sisters. Together, Christians and Muslims, we shall fight terrorism.
Father Benyamin, pastor in Anba Rweiss
The Coptic Orthodox Church and her spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II, and our Holy Synod, offer their sincerest condolences to our Muslim brothers and sisters. We stand wholeheartedly with them because we went through the same tragedies.
Father Boulos Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church
We have celebrated the prayer of the deceased in all of Egypt’s mosques and we feel united in the fight against terrorism.
Sheikh Hani Saad, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque
The Armed Forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and bring security and stability with force very soon. The Air Force destroyed several vehicles used in the attack and targeted several terrorist homes with weapons and ammunition.
Tamer Al-Rifai, military spokesman