At least 235 people were killed when gunmen stormed a mosque during Friday prayers in the Sinai Peninsula, setting off explosives and firing on worshippers in what was believed to be the deadliest single attack by Islamist extremists on Egyptian civilians.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault in the town of Bir Abed, about 25 miles from the North Sinai provincial capital of Arish. But the region has long been the scene of a simmering Islamist insurgency, and Islamic State fighters have dramatically escalated the level of violence there in recent years.
Friday’s attack, which reportedly involved more than a dozen gunmen who arrived in off-road vehicles, targeted a mosque frequented by Sufi Muslims, followers of a mystical branch of Islam who are viewed as heretics by Sunni extremists.
There were conflicting accounts of how the attack unfolded. Some witnesses said a bomb detonated outside the mosque’s main gate, prompting a panicked flight for the exits. Others did not report hearing an explosion but said at least three attackers broke into the mosque, locked the doors and started firing on those inside.
As worshippers tried to flee, more gunmen were lying in wait.
“The mosque has two exits, and both were covered by the terrorists, who were parked in cars and started firing at everyone who tried to escape,” said a local resident who wasn’t inside the mosque when the attack happened but rushed to the scene to help. Like others interviewed, he asked to be identified by only his first name, Tariq, for fear of retribution.
“It was a horrible scene; there were bodies everywhere,” said another witness, who gave his name as Mahmoud. “They first shot at those praying inside, then onto the ablution area and killed those (in there) as well.”
The assailants blocked access to the area by blowing up cars in the road and also fired on ambulances as they rushed to the scene, witnesses and news reports said.
In addition to the 235 killed, more than 100 were injured, according to state-run television. Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, declared three days of national mourning and convened a meeting of top security officials.
A video taken from inside the mosque showed the grim aftermath of the attack. Dozens of bodies were arrayed on the carpeted floor, their arms folded and their faces covered with sheets, many of them streaked with blood.
Activists on Facebook issued pleas for blood donors to make their way to the Bir Abed hospital, where many of the wounded were taken.
Hussam Rifai, a member of parliament from Arish, told the local Masrawy media outlet that most of the casualties were from the Sawarkah tribe, Sufis who are seen as broadly supportive of the government, and who have refused to cooperate with Islamic State.
The group has targeted both Sufis and their shrines in the past. Almost a year ago, Islamic State published a video purportedly showing the beheading of Suleiman Abu Haraz, the 98-year-old spiritual leader of the Sufis in the Sinai who had been kidnapped from his house in Arish.
Islamist militants have stepped up attacks in Sinai since Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, amid anti-government protests in 2013.
Hundreds of police, soldiers and civilians have been killed since then, most of them in attacks carried out by fighters loyal to Islamic State, who consider the Sinai one of the provinces of their self-proclaimed caliphate. The 47-mile stretch of road connecting Arish to Bir Abed has become a regular escape route for the militants.
“Historically the state has struggled to exercise full control over Northern Sinai,” said Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The area is underdeveloped and is mostly mountainous desert terrain.”
Islamic State’s affiliate has carried out deadly bombings on churches in the capital, Cairo, and other cities. It is also believed to have been responsible for the downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 226 people in 2015.
But the targeting of a Muslim mosque represents a shift for the militants, who have typically aimed their attacks in the Sinai at Egypt’s security forces.
Kaldas said the government would need to reach out to the local Bedouin tribes and enlist them in the fight against Islamic State.
“The government has started to do that, and we’ll see if this attack makes Bedouin in Sinai more interested in fighting ISIS given how this attack targeted them so brutally,” Kaldas said, using a common acronym for the group.
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Although Islamic State has lost control of most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, security experts have warned that the group remains active in other parts of the world, and its followers likely will revert to guerrilla-style tactics.
Messages of condolence and support poured in from around the world, including from Britain, France, Israel, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
President Trump condemned the “horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers” in a tweet.
“The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!” he said.
(Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut, and special correspondents Medhat and Bulos reported from Cairo and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, respectively.)
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