Mass-Killing Attack at a Sufi Mosque in the Sinai Peninsula: Overview and Assessment

The mosque in the village of al-Rawda in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

The mosque in the village of al-Rawda in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

the bodies of some of the victims of the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Haq, November 25, 2017).

the bodies of some of the victims of the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Haq, November 25, 2017).

Two vehicles belonging to local residents set on fire by ISIS operatives (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2017).

Two vehicles belonging to local residents set on fire by ISIS operatives (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2017).

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi speaks to the Egyptian people after the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Masr al-Arabiya, November 24, 2017).

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi speaks to the Egyptian people after the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Masr al-Arabiya, November 24, 2017).

overview

On November 24, 2017, there was a combined mass-killing attack at a mosque in the village of al-Rawda, near the town of Bir al-Abd (about 45 kilometers – 28 miles – west of El-Arish). It was the most deadly terrorist attack in Egypt’s history, with 309 people killed, 27 of them children, and 124 wounded (most of them civilians at the mosque for the Friday prayer). The villagers, most of whom belong to the al-Sawarka tribe, are Sufi Muslims, therefore considered “infidels” by ISIS and therefore a target for attack. According to the modus operandi of the attack, in ITIC assessment it was carried out by ISIS, although ISIS denies involvement.

  • The attack on the mosque in al-Rawda illustrates the high operational capabilities of ISIS’s Sinai Province, which in recent months has increased the intensity and complexity of its activities. In ITIC assessment, at the present time the Sinai Province – and ISIS’s other provinces abroad – are especially interested in carrying out showcase attacks to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with. In addition to the attack in Egypt, ISIS has recently carried out deadly showcase attacks in other provinces (Yemen and Afghanistan). They indicate that the operational capabilities and motivation in ISIS’s various provinces are still strong, even after the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Description of the attack
  • According to reports in the Egyptian media and announcements from Egyptian Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek, between 25 and 30 terrorist operatives carried out the attack. They arrived driving five ATVs and waving ISIS flags. Some of them wore masks. They surrounded the mosque during the Friday prayer and took positions at the door and 12 windows. They then tossed two IEDs into the mosque and opened fire from the doors and windows at the people inside. They then set fire to seven vehicles belonging to local residents and drove away. In ITIC assessment setting fire to the vehicles was meant to make it difficult to evacuate the wounded from the mosque and to pursue the terrorists.
 The bodies of some of the victims (Haq, November 25, 2017).   The mosque in the village of al-Rawda in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
Right: The mosque in the village of al-Rawda in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
Left: The bodies of some of the victims (Haq, November 25, 2017).

Cartoon condemning ISIS for the attack (Twitter account of dedo_08 كله فى البخاخه@, November 24, 2017).
Cartoon condemning ISIS for the attack (Twitter account of dedo_08 كله فى البخاخه@, November 24, 2017).

ISIS’s denial

  • On November 26, 2017, ISIS’s al-Haq News Agency issued a three-minute video in English in which it claimed ISIS’s Sinai Province denied any connection to the attack on the Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai Peninsula. According to the video, most of those killed were from the al-Sawarka tribe, many of whom belong to ISIS. In addition, a group of Sufis (a mystical trend in Islam) was allegedly detained in the past by ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula but later released. The video calls on the Sufis to learn from ISIS the concept of tawhid (the unity of Allah) and oppose polytheists.
  • The video accuses the Egyptian army of using the attack to draw the al-Sawarka tribe into fighting against ISIS. It accused Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of wanting to make the al-Sawarka tribe think ISIS had killed members of the tribe (Haq, November 26, 2017[1]).

A scene from the ISIS video denying the attack: "The Islamic State's Sinai Province denies responsibility for the attack on the al-Rawda mosque in Sinai..." (Haq, November 26, 2017).
A scene from the ISIS video denying the attack: “The Islamic State’s Sinai Province denies responsibility for the attack on the al-Rawda mosque in Sinai…” (Haq, November 26, 2017).

In ITIC assessment, ISIS’s denial of responsibility for the deadly attack on the al-Rawda mosque, and its accusations against the Egyptian army and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are lies. The attack on the mosque, which was carried out by between 25 and 30 operatives driving five ATVs, demanded a high level of operational capability and complexity, which is characteristic exclusively of ISIS’s Sinai Province. According to reports in the Egyptian media and an announcement from the Egyptian prosecutor general, the terrorists who carried out the attack waved ISIS flags. Choosing to attack Sufi Muslims would be in character for ISIS. ISIS considers Sufis as “infidels” and according to reports, in the past the Sufis supported the Egyptian security forces.

Reaction of the Egyptian security forces
  •  The Egyptian army searched the site around the attack. The Egyptian air force located and attacked some of the terrorist operatives who had left the scene. The Egyptian army published photographs showing the destruction of two of the vehicles used by the terrorists in the attack (Facebook page of the Egyptian army spokesman, November 25, 2017). The Egyptian media reported that the Egyptian army had killed 15 terrorist operatives involved in the attack, apparently operatives in the vehicles at the time of their destruction (masrawy.com, November 24, 2017). In addition, the Egyptian air force attacked ISIS bases in the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian army issued a video showing attacks on ISIS bases, weapons, ammunition and explosives.

Right: An ISIS base in the Sinai Peninsula attacked and destroyed by the Egyptian air force. Right: The destruction of the base (Facebook page of the Egyptian army spokesman, November 25, 2017).

  • On November 26, 2017, the northern Sinai Peninsula was put on high alert. Egyptian security forces erected mobile roadblocks in the streets of El-Arish (al-Watan, November 26, 2017). In addition, there were clashes between the Egyptian army and “terrorist operatives” during the army’s evacuation of buildings in the buffer zone between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip (Facebook page of Sinai News, November 26, 2017). On November 27, 2017, it was reported that Egyptian security forces were carrying out a “security operation” in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The operation currently focuses on El-Arish, where dozens of suspects were detained (al-Masry al-Youm, November 27, 2017).
Egyptian President al-El-Sisi promises a war to the death against
  •  On November 24, 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave a speech about the mass killing at the al-Rawda mosque. He promised that the Egyptian army and police force would use “all their power” to restore security and stability in the near future. He said, “We will respond in cruel fashion[2] in dealing with these extremist groups, the infidel takfiris [i.e., Salafist-jihadists].”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi speaks to the Egyptian people after the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Masr al-Arabiya, November 24, 2017).
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi speaks to the Egyptian people after the attack on the mosque in al-Rawda (Masr al-Arabiya, November 24, 2017).

The Sufis in ISIS’s crosshairs
  • The residents of the village of al-Rawda belong to the Sufi school of Islam, which ISIS considers “infidel.” According to the Egyptian paper al-Shorouk, based information from a security source, a month ago there was an incident between terrorist operatives [i.e., ISIS operatives] and the local residents, because the residents objected to ISIS’s activities against the Egyptian army and police and against the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. According to reports in the Arab media, in the past ISIS’s Sinai Province threatened the villagers and the followers of Sufism in general. After the current attack the mosque demanded that the Egyptian ministry of the interior secure the large Sufi mosques in Cairo and in other districts because they had become a target for ISIS (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2017).
  • Sufism is a mystical trend in Islam which believes the deity cannot be perceived only through the senses or the mind, but rather encourages an internal search for religious belief and discourages materialism. The internal search includes asceticism, isolation and concentration, through which unity with the divine can be attained. Sufism favors Islamic religious law (Sharia) but also believes that the complete understanding of the deity and his ways can be attained only by tariqa, a school or order of Sufism, or specifically a concept for the mystical teaching and spiritual practices of such an order with the aim of seeking haqiqa, “ultimate truth” (Wikipedia).[3]
  • In modern times the Sufis have been persecuted by trends of extremist Islam and the Salafi jihadist organizations (al-Qaeda and ISIS), which regard their way of life and practices as infidel and a violation of Islam. Today there are about 15 million Sufis in the world, most of them Sunnis. The Sufis accept the authority of the Arab governments, which protect them. The Sufis in the Sinai Peninsula support the Egyptian regime in its struggle against extreme Islamism, and that is apparently the reason for ISIS’s choice of the village of al-Rawda as the target for the mass-killing attack.
The al-Sawarka tribe
  • The al-Sawarka is the second largest Bedouin tribe in the Sinai Peninsula; the largest is the al-Tarabin. There are about 250 thousand al-Sawarka tribesmen, although there are also claims of 750 thousand. The tribesmen live in the northern Gaza Strip in Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and El-Arish, and in the villages of al-Rawda and Bir al-Abd. They also have settlements in southern Israel (the Negev), Judea and Samaria, and Jordan. According to the Egyptian media, the motivation for the attack on the tribesmen in al-Rawda was apparently the tribe’s public support for the Egyptian government and army in the campaign against ISIS.

[1] The video includes news material and sections from previous ISIS videos. It is in English with Arabic subtitles. The sound track indicates it was not spoken by a person, but rather by a computer program, another indication of the problems ISIS has been having recently with its propaganda machine.
[2] According to a statement from the spokesman for the Egyptian's president's office, by "cruel fashion" el-Sisi meant the merciless use of force against the terrorists and their elimination (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2017).
[3] Wikipedia