The attackers who stormed a crowded mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai, killing at least 305 people, hoisted the Islamic State flag, the public prosecutor said Saturday as details began to emerge about the deadliest single attack in the country’s recent history.
The prosecutor’s statement came hours after Egypt’s military launched an offensive against the suspected perpetrators, with warplanes targeting several vehicles purportedly used in the gun and bomb attack on a mosque west of the coastal city of 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.
The attack highlighted the challenges President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi faces restoring security and reviving an economy after years of upheaval since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The assault was carried out by 25 to 30 militants, who stormed in during midday prayers and positioned themselves by the mosque’s door and windows before opening fire on the worshipers with automatic weapons, the prosecutor’s office said. They arrived in five sport-utility vehicles, it said.
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 group has killed hundreds of police and soldiers in a fight that has gathered momentum since El-Sissi was elected in 2014 after the military-backed uprising that removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
The Islamic State-Sinai Province has also widened its focus to include the country’s minority Coptic Christians, launching attacks on churches. The mosque that was targeted Friday is frequented by Sufis, whose interpretation of Islam is considered heretical by jihadist groups like Islamic State.
While the violence is unlikely to threaten the stability of El-Sissi’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.
El-Sissi made a televised statement vowing to avenge the dead and restore stability. He also said that those who supported, financed or incited the attack would face justice. “We will respond to this act with brutal force,” he said.
El-Sissi’s government has cracked down on Islamists since Morsi’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 Islamic State in Libya.
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