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How parts of Egypt’s rugged Sinai peninsula have become a terrorist hot spot

At least 305 people were killed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after militants detonated a bomb and shot at worshipers in a mosque on Nov. 24. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The Sinai Peninsula once had a reputation as one of the Egypt's most attractive places to visit as a foreign tourist, offering world-class resorts, rugged landscapes and incredible diving. But in recent years, a sequence of violent attacks have shaken the sparsely populated region and given it a reputation as a terrorism hot spot.

Friday's attack in Bir al-Abd will only reaffirm that idea. In what appears to have been a highly coordinated assault, bombs went off in a local mosque before gunmen shot surviving worshipers. At least 235 people are believed to have been killed, according to Egyptian state television.

If that death toll stands, Friday's attack will become the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history — surpassing even a suspected 2015 bomb attack that led Metrojet Flight 9268 to disintegrate after its departure from Sinai's Sharm El Sheikh International Airport on Oct. 31, 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.

It will also reaffirm that the Sinai Peninsula is one of the deadliest places for terrorist attacks in the world. The attack in Bir al-Abd is  the second-deadliest terrorist attack of 2017 to date, second only to a suicide bombing last month in Mogadishu, Somalia, that left more than 358 dead.

What makes the high death tolls in Sinai especially notable is the lack of population density across the peninsula, which holds just 1.4 million people spread over an area slightly smaller than West Virginia. Mogadishu alone is estimated to have a population of more than 2 million.

According to data from IHS Jane's, there have been more deaths from large-scale terrorist attacks in Sinai this year than there had been in any other country except for Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia — all of which have populations at least 10 times larger than Sinai.

Crucially, not all of Sinai has been equally affected. Most recent attacks have been centered on the easternmost part of the North Sinai area, according to Zack Gold, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Though the famous tourist areas in South Sinai have been targeted in the past — Sharm El Sheikh is perhaps its best known resort — it has not seen violence on the same scale as the north, in part due to the fact that they are better protected.

Bir al-Abd is outside the traditional zone of conflict in eastern North Sinai and is closer to Arish, the largest city on the peninsula. Wilayat Sinai, a prominent insurgent group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, has recently been pushing to expand its territory toward the central part of Sinai and staging attacks in other parts of Egypt.

“One thing that the group has been trying to do as it claims to be province [of the Islamic State] is attempting to take — or at least show — some kind of expanding authority,” Gold said. “This attack doesn't necessarily show that Islamic State has the authority over the area, but that the Egyptian state lacks authority.”

The targeting of a Sufi mosque is also noteworthy. Sinai has a very long history of insurgency in the historically lawless peninsula, but up until very recently, attacks in Sinai have tended to target police or the military rather than civilians: Since July 2013, at least 1,000 members of the security forces have been killed in attacks in the peninsula, according to data compiled by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute, said that although there has not been a claim of responsibility for the attack, in the past the Islamic State had threatened Egypt's Sufi community. The Sawarka, a local tribe who had been in conflict with the Islamic State, also lived in the area around the mosque, Okail added. “The Sufi animosity could be a justification of the killing since they are Muslims,” she said.

What remains to be seen is how the government will respond to the escalating threat in Sinai. In a televised speech Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi offered condolences to the victims and vowed that Egypt’s armed forces would respond with “brute force.”

But much of Sinai has been under emergency rule since 2014, with a heavy military presence and anti-terrorist activity.

“When the president of Egypt says we are going to have a harsh response, the question I ask is, what is more harsh than what has already been done?” Gold said. “And how will that be more successful?”

Laris Karklis contributed to this report

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Attack on Sinai mosque kills at least 235 in Egypt’s deadliest militant strike