Gunmen attacked a packed mosque in Egypt’s restive North Sinai province at the height of Friday prayers, set off explosives and opened fire, killing at least 235 people in the deadliest ever attack on Egyptian civilians by Islamic extremists.
An explosion ripped through the Rawdah mosque in the town of Bir al-Abd, roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the North Sinai capital of el-Arish, before gunmen opened fire on the worshipers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said.
State television reported at least 235 people were killed and 130 wounded in the attack, which is unprecedented in a four-year insurgency by Islamist terror groups.
An unconfirmed report in Sky News Arabia said Egyptian military forces had destroyed two vehicles carrying perpetrators of the attack.
An army source told the TV station that unmanned drones had attacked two cars in a desert area called al-Risha, killing 15 jihadists. He added that the hunt for other perpetrators was ongoing.
There was no official word from Egypt’s military on the matter.
At least 115 people killed in Sinai after suspected militants carried out a bomb attack on a mosque and reportedly opened fire at worshippers attending Friday prayers.#cbsfmnews pic.twitter.com/nOvKZvm9Vu
— CBS FM (@888cbsfm) November 24, 2017
Witnesses said the assailants surrounded the mosque with all-terrain vehicles, then planted a bomb outside.
The gunmen then mowed down the panicked worshipers as they attempted to flee and used the congregants’ vehicles they had set alight to block routes to the mosque.
Egypt’s presidency declared three days of mourning and raised the level of military alert, state television reported, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi convened his security ministers to grapple with the attack.
— Kevin W. (@kwilli1046) November 24, 2017
Egyptian officials said men in four off-road vehicles detonated an explosive device at the mosque during the sermon at Friday prayers, then opened fire on worshipers. They then fired at ambulances and rescue crews who arrived to care for the wounded.
Ahmed Abul Gheit, head of the Arab League which is based in Cairo, condemned the “terrifying crime,” his spokesman said in a statement.
Egypt’s state news agency reported the casualty toll, citing “official sources,” revising it upward several times following the officials’ initial reports.
Cairo’s international airport boosted security following the attack, with more troopers and forces seen patrolling passenger halls, conducting searches and manning checkpoints at airport approaches.
State condolences poured in for Egypt, including messages from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Russia, France and Britain condemning the violence.
The Islamic State group’s Egypt branch has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, and also civilians accused of working with the authorities, in attacks in the north of the Sinai Peninsula. They have also targeted followers of the mystical Sufi branch of Sunni Islam as well as Christians.
A tribal leader and head of a Bedouin militia that fights IS told AFP that the mosque is known as a place of gathering for Sufis. The Islamic State group shares the puritan Salafi view of Sufis as heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.
The military has struggled to quell the jihadists who pledged allegiance to IS in November 2014.
IS regularly conducts attacks against soldiers and policemen in the peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, although the frequency and scale of such attacks has diminished over the past year.
The jihadists have since increasingly turned to civilian targets, attacking not only Christians and Sufis but also Bedouin Sinai inhabitants accused of working with the army.
Aside from IS, Egypt also faces a threat from Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists who operate out of neighboring Libya.
A group calling itself Ansar al-Islam — Supporters of Islam in Arabic — claimed an October ambush in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed at least 16 policemen. Many of those killed belonged to the interior ministry’s secretive National Security Service.
The military later conducted air strikes on the attackers, killing their leader Emad al-Din Abdel Hamid, a most wanted jihadist who was a military officer before joining an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Libya’s militant stronghold of Derna.
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