The terror attack Friday at a mosque in the small northern Sinai town of Bir al-Abd wasn’t especially sophisticated. Rather than advanced military skills, the gruesome scene was testimony only to the moral blindness and cruelty of the perpetrators.
First, they set off two bombs inside the mosque, which was thronged with Friday worshipers. Then, when the survivors streamed toward the exits, terrorists waited outside in all-terrain vehicles, picking off those who emerged.
In that fashion, some 305 people were killed and 128 wounded. Based on assessments on social media, before the attack, Bir al-Abd was a town of some 1,500 souls, meaning that about one in three of its residents was a casualty.
As of Saturday evening, there had been no claim of responsibility for the attack, but the immediate suspicion falls on Islamic State’s Sinai Province, the group formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Its leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Osama (his real name is Muhammad al-Isawi), took over after his predecessor, Abu Du’a al-Ansari, was assassinated in August 2016.
The pretext for Friday’s attack was likely the mosque’s affiliation with Islam’s mystical Sufi stream. It is known as the birthplace of Sheikh Eid al-Jariri, considered the founder of Sufism in the Sinai. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni organizations before it, has denounced the Sufis.
But for IS it isn’t merely about religious differences: In the past two years, the Sufis have worked in tight cooperation with Egyptian security forces in the peninsula in an effort to counter the Islamic State and curb recruitment among the local Beduin.
Recent months have also seen a clan war that has pitted several tribes (notably Tarabin) against the Islamic State. The spate of mutual killings, which has included beheadings (not only on the part of IS), may also be connected to Friday’s attack. Last May, tribesmen executed eight Sinai Province operatives in retribution for a car bomb the terror group detonated near a Tarabin encampment.
Among the triggers for those incidents was Sinai Province’s effort to take control of smuggling along the border with the Gaza Strip and to stem the flow of cigarettes, which they forbid, into the Sinai. Those restrictions threatened the livelihood of the Tarabins, who responded with violence.
But beyond IS cruelty and inter-tribal strife, what this attack drives home – and not for the first time – is the extent of the difficulty facing the Egyptian army in its efforts to counter the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai. Indeed, the frequency of attacks in mainland Egypt has gone down of late, and even within the Sinai the military has been able to operate relatively unmolested. Yet, Egyptian intelligence has come up against obvious difficulties in its effort to gain a real foothold in the peninsula, including amassing sufficient human and technological assets to clamp down on terrorism there.
In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s attack, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a new military onslaught against the perpetrators. Hours later, reports emerged of airstrikes against terror targets and dozens of dead among the insurgents. The question is what prevented Egypt from taking such action before the attack, and why previous efforts in the wake of earlier attacks did not yield significant gains.
Egypt has long refrained from embarking on an extensive operation, in the vein of the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and Gaza in 2002. Perhaps the cost of such a campaign would be prohibitive, or maybe it’s that as long as terrorism is more-or-less confined to the northeastern Sinai, Cairo doesn’t care as much.
Eventually, though, those same terrorists who decimated the small town of Bir al-Abd will target vacationers on the sunny shores of the Red Sea, and then in Cairo itself.