Egypt Attackers Hoisted Islamic State Flag

Egypt raised its security alert to the highest level on Saturday as it emerged that the Islamic State may have been behind a mosque attack in the restive north Sinai in which more than 300 people died, the most lethal single assault in the country’s recent history.

Hours after the midday attack on Friday, the military said it launched overnight airstrikes that destroyed vehicles believed to have been used in the gun and bomb attack on the mosque west of the city of Al-Arish. There has been no claim of responsibility, but analysts said it bore the hallmark of an Islamic State affiliate that operates in the area and highlighted the challenges President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi faces restoring security and reviving economic growth after years of upheaval since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Initial investigations showed the attackers hoisted the Islamic State flag during the attack, which was carried out by 25 to 30 militants, the public prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The militants, who stormed the mosque frequented by Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam, blocked the door and windows of the building and opened fire on worshipers with automatic weapons, according to the statement. They arrived in five sport-utility vehicles, it said.

At least 27 children were among the dead, and more than 100 other people were wounded, authorities said. The incident, coming as Egypt is making significant progress in reviving an economy battered in the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, laid bare the challenges confronting El-Sisi and his government in combating a resilient militancy that has defied efforts to stamp it out.

Failed Tactics

El-Sisi has already reshuffled his top security, including the military’s chief of staff, following an ambush of police in the western desert last month that left at least 16 dead. Even with these changes, however, this attack “will drive home the point that the tactics the Egyptian military has pursued in the past years have been a relative failure,” said Riccardo Fabiani, Eurasia Group’s senior North Africa and Middle East analyst. 

Sinai, a triangular tract of land bordering Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal, has emerged as the main battleground in the government’s fight against local militants who pledged allegiance to Islamic State three years ago. The area has been under a near constant state of emergency and is largely off limits to journalists and outsiders as the military and police conduct sweeping raids that activists and analysts suggest may only serve to further embitter an already embattled population in the region.

At the same time, the Islamic State’s local affiliate has shown little sign of giving ground. The group has killed hundreds of police and soldiers in a fight that has gathered momentum since El-Sisi was elected in 2014 after the military-backed uprising that removed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Wider Focus

The Islamic State-Sinai Province has also widened its focus to include the country’s minority Coptic Christians, launching attacks on churches, including in Cairo and Alexandria. The mosque that was targeted on Friday is frequented by Sufis, whose mystical interpretation of Islam is considered heretical by jihadist groups like Islamic State.

While the violence is unlikely to threaten the stability of El-Sisi’s government, it has devastated the tourist industry, a vital pillar of an economy that’s struggling back to life after years of political upheaval.

“Egypt is facing terrorism on behalf of the entire region and the aim behind what is happening is to stop us from confronting terrorism,” El-Sisi said in a televised address, vowing to avenge the dead and restore stability. “We will respond to this act with brutal force.”

His government has waged a sweeping crackdown against Islamists since Mursi’s ouster, killing hundreds and detaining tens of thousands more in a push that has prompted criticism from international human-rights groups. On Saturday, a Cairo criminal court sentenced seven people to death after convicting them of belonging to the Islamic State in Libya.

Friday’s attack is the biggest of its kind in recent memory. The last comparable assault took place in 2015, when the local Islamic State affiliate bombed a Russian passenger plane carrying holidaymakers from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, killing 224 people.

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