Mosque attack is a testament to Egypt’s impotence in Sinai
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AnalysisEventually they will target Red Sea resorts, and then Cairo

Mosque attack is a testament to Egypt’s impotence in Sinai

For now Cairo may be able to afford to let insurgents and local tribes battle it out, but eventually the terrorists will hit closer to home

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

View of the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometers west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)
View of the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometers west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

The terror attack Friday at a mosque in the small northern Sinai town of Bir al-Abd wasn’t especially sophisticated. Rather than advanced military skills, the gruesome scene was testimony only to the moral blindness and cruelty of the perpetrators.

First, they set off two bombs inside the mosque, which was thronged with Friday worshipers. Then, when the survivors streamed toward the exits, terrorists waited outside in all-terrain vehicles, picking off those who emerged.

In that fashion, some 305 people were killed and 128 wounded. Based on assessments on social media, before the attack, Bir al-Abd was a town of some 1,500 souls, meaning that about one in three of its residents was a casualty.

Relatives of the victims of the bomb and gun assault on the North Sinai Rawda mosque walk past an ambulance while waiting outside the Suez Canal University hospital in the eastern port city of Ismailia on November 25, 2017, where the injured were taken to receive treatment following the deadly attack the day before. (AFP/Mohammed El-Shahed)

As of Saturday evening, there had been no claim of responsibility for the attack, but the immediate suspicion falls on Islamic State’s Sinai Province, the group formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Its leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Osama (his real name is Muhammad al-Isawi), took over after his predecessor, Abu Du’a al-Ansari, was assassinated in August 2016.

The pretext for Friday’s attack was likely the mosque’s affiliation with Islam’s mystical Sufi stream. It is known as the birthplace of Sheikh Eid al-Jariri, considered the founder of Sufism in the Sinai. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni organizations before it, has denounced the Sufis.

But for IS it isn’t merely about religious differences: In the past two years, the Sufis have worked in tight cooperation with Egyptian security forces in the peninsula in an effort to counter the Islamic State and curb recruitment among the local Beduin.

Recent months have also seen a clan war that has pitted several tribes (notably Tarabin) against the Islamic State. The spate of mutual killings, which has included beheadings (not only on the part of IS), may also be connected to Friday’s attack. Last May, tribesmen executed eight Sinai Province operatives in retribution for a car bomb the terror group detonated near a Tarabin encampment.

Illustrative: An Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula holds Egyptian Coptic Christians hostage. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Among the triggers for those incidents was Sinai Province’s effort to take control of smuggling along the border with the Gaza Strip and to stem the flow of cigarettes, which they forbid, into the Sinai. Those restrictions threatened the livelihood of the Tarabins, who responded with violence.

But beyond IS cruelty and inter-tribal strife, what this attack drives home – and not for the first time – is the extent of the difficulty facing the Egyptian army in its efforts to counter the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai. Indeed, the frequency of attacks in mainland Egypt has gone down of late, and even within the Sinai the military has been able to operate relatively unmolested. Yet, Egyptian intelligence has come up against obvious difficulties in its effort to gain a real foothold in the peninsula, including amassing sufficient human and technological assets to clamp down on terrorism there.

In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s attack, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a new military onslaught against the perpetrators. Hours later, reports emerged of airstrikes against terror targets and dozens of dead among the insurgents. The question is what prevented Egypt from taking such action before the attack, and why previous efforts in the wake of earlier attacks did not yield significant gains.

Egypt has long refrained from embarking on an extensive operation, in the vein of the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and Gaza in 2002. Perhaps the cost of such a campaign would be prohibitive, or maybe it’s that as long as terrorism is more-or-less confined to the northeastern Sinai, Cairo doesn’t care as much.

Eventually, though, those same terrorists who decimated the small town of Bir al-Abd will target vacationers on the sunny shores of the Red Sea, and then in Cairo itself.

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