Last week’s attack on worshipers at a mosque in Egypt was by far the country’s worst terrorist massacre in modern history. More than 300 people died at the al-Rawda mosque — surpassing the death toll of a 2015 attack, when 224 people died after a Russian Metrojet plane was bombed in Sinai. Both attacks — and with them the rise of Egypt’s strongest insurgency — happened despite four years of brutal counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics unrestricted by laws, morality or the constitution.
Sinai’s insurgency is puzzling for insurgency and counterinsurgency studies for several reasons. Geographically, Sinai’s northeastern coastal terrain is not rugged. Most of the armed action occurs in three of north Sinai governorate’s six districts. Those districts have a small population of less than 300,000. And loyalty is divided within families, clans, and tribes.
None of the regional governments is directly supportive of the insurgency, including the Hamas authorities in Gaza. On the other hand, for every estimated insurgent there are 100 army soldiers against them, not counting the security forces and tribal militiamen. This is in addition to the support provided by the United States in terms of financing, training, equipment and intelligence, the support provided by Israel in terms of intelligence-sharing and tactical operations, and other foreign support.
Still, the Sinaian insurgency has endured for over seven years, even after escalating operations by the military in September 2013. Two low-level insurgencies in the western desert and the Nile valley developed after the 2013 military coup and the following series of massacres of anti-coup protesters. The government-funded Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies recorded 1,165 armed operations between 2014 and 2016.
This translates into an operation per day for three continuous years. My research on the Islamic State’s Sinai Province fighters shows over 800 attacks between 2014 and 2016 — and over 300 attacks perpetrated in the first nine months of 2017.
Aside from the unprecedented number of attacks, the lethality is notable. Under the rule of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the two worst terrorist attacks in Egypt’s modern history occurred: the Russian plane bombing and al-Rawda mosque. The latter is five times more lethal than the worst attack perpetrated under Hosni Mubarak (57 victims in the Luxor Massacre in 1997) and 19 times more lethal than the worst attack perpetrated under Mohamed Morsi (16 dead soldiers in Karem Abu Salem in 2012).
Internationally, the attack is much more lethal than other attacks on mosques, such as in Baghdad in January 2017 (52 victims), Kabul in June 2017 (150 victims), and northeastern Nigeria in November 2017 (50 victims). It is the second deadliest terrorist attack of 2017 to date, after the Mogadishu bombing last October (358 victims).
A preventable massacre?
The targeted mosque is one of only four known mosques associated with Sufi orders in north Sinai governorate. It is usually attended and serviced by members of the al-Jarir clan of the al-Sawarka tribe — the largest tribe in northern Sinai with some of the Islamic State’s Sinai Province commanders and fighters hailing from it. The attack shows a significant change in target selection: It is the first time that Sinai Province attacked Sufis indiscriminately.
Before, indiscriminate attacks were limited to three targets: the army and security forces, the Coptic Christian community and Israel. The Sinai Province avoided indiscriminately attacking some of the tribes from which pro-regime tribal militia hail (such as the Tarabin tribe). My research shows the assassination of 167 alleged informants during Sinai Province’s first year of operations (November 2014 to October 2015) and another 74 alleged informants in its second year (November 2015 to October 2016). Those victims were individually selected. In the overwhelming majority of the cases, Sinai Province avoided their families and their clans.
Since mid-2016, Sinai Province has made it clear that Sufis are on their hit list. In January 2017, the Islamic State published an interview specifically naming the al-Rawda mosque and al-Jarir Clan as “deviants,” opening both as possible targets. The interview also named two other Sufi mosques in north Sinai and al-Ismailia governorates, and said that “the Islamic State will eradicate them.” In March 2017, Sinai Province published a Wahhabi-style propaganda video showing Sinai Province militants warning Sufi-affiliates, kidnapping dozens of them, requesting their “repentance,” and beheading two well-known Sinaian Sufi sheikhs.
Given the explicit threats to named targets, most experts expected that these mosques would be protected by the security or the army forces. This never happened — a major security blunder.
Still, given previous performance of the soldiers in Sinai, security may not have prevented the attack. But it would have certainly reduced the horrific number of casualties.
The future of the conflict
The Sinaian conflict is likely to change in the near future. It will probably involve more belligerents, including more members of the Sawarka tribe fighting directly against Sinai Province. And perhaps more confrontations between Sinai Province and other Sinaian-based armed organizations, like Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), which attacked Sinai Province before and strongly condemned the mosque attack.
These rifts can give rise to transformative patterns similar to Algeria or Iraq, where infighting and further societal involvement marked an end of a phase in the two conflicts. There are two differences, however, in the Egyptian case. First, the counterinsurgency/counterterrorism and sociopolitical policies of the regime are too rigid and too reactionary to capitalize on these rifts. More problematic is the current sociopolitical environment in Egypt, which is repressive enough to produce even more tragedies.
Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and a visiting professor at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. He the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.”