CAIRO — Following the worst terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history, Cairo is facing a difficult task to address a quickly evolving and escalating terrorist threat in the country.
At least 305 people were killed, and dozens more injured, in a bomb and gun attack on al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed on November 24 in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula where the Egyptian state has been fighting both Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups for years.
An estimated 40 Islamist militants armed with guns shot worshippers who were fleeing a bomb blast at the mosque, adding to the carnage and mayhem.
Although no group claimed responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the attack, most observers believe that ISIS was likely responsible. The Bir al-Abed mosque was known to have a large Sufi congregation — viewed as heretical by the militant group.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a terrorist group that morphed into being an ISIS affiliate in Sinai, previously targeted Sufi shrines in Sinai and executed a Sufi sheikh in November 2016.
ISIS has also previously targeted Christian places of worship in Egypt, with a church bombing leading to a state of emergency that remains in place today.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was quick to condemn the attack and pledge to “avenge” Egypt’s martyrs. “It is a cowardly attack that aims to destabilise the [country’s] unity, spread bitterness and make us doubt our abilities,” he said in an address to the nation.
“However, this attack will do nothing but make us stronger and more persistent to combat terrorism… We will respond to this attack with brutal strength to defeat these terrorists,” he said.
Cairo authorised air strikes on targets in the Sinai Peninsula following the attack, with local media also reporting a major ground operation.
US President Donald Trump said the attack was “horrible and cowardly.” “The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!” he wrote on Twitter.
The November 24 attack came less than two weeks after al-Qaeda-linked Jund al-Islam (“Soldiers of Islam”) released an audio tape on November 11 claiming responsibility for the death of a number of ISIS fighters in an attack.
The prospect of an al-Qaeda- ISIS conflict at the same time that Egypt’s military is fighting both has left many questioning what the future holds for the Sinai Peninsula.
“The situation is very bad in North Sinai,” said Sameh Eid, an independent researcher focusing on militant and Islamist groups. “There is an urgent need for reformulating all security strategies for them to meet the growing threats.”
Jund al-Islam is believed to be mainly composed of Palestinian and Egyptian Bedouin jihadists and was one of 19 jihadist groups reported to be active in Sinai before the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of longstanding President Hosni Mubarak.
The history of jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula is a complex one that has seen various incarnations of al-Qaeda and then ISIS-linked groups unite, divide and re-form.
The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Beit al-Maqdis swore allegiance to ISIS’s self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in November 2014.
A short-lived inter-jihadist conflict saw ISIS consolidate its position in Sinai; however al-Qaeda-linked groups have lately returned to the fore in Egypt, with analysts warning that this could herald the start of a wider conflict between the two jihadist groups.
The Jund al-Islam statement described ISIS in Sinai as “kharijites” — a term that relates to a group of early Muslims who rebelled against the third and fourth Muslim caliphs and which is often used by jihadists today to relate to those they view as heretical. This reigniting of hostilities between the two competing jihadist groups is believed to be over ideological issues, analysts said.
“It is about competing for power and control with ISIS,” said Mounir Adib, another expert in Islamist and militant groups. “Ideological gaps between ISIS and al-Qaeda make their hostility and collision inevitable."
There are major ideological and tactical differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda. While ISIS has not been shy about announcing various “Islamic caliphates” wherever it operates, this is something that al-Qaeda believes must wait.
Tactically, ISIS has not hesitated to target civilians, particularly Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, whereas the al-Qaeda-linked groups have sought to focus their fire on Egypt’s security apparatus.
The re-emergence of Jund al- Islam will certainly complicate the situation in the Sinai Peninsula, but some have expressed hope that this could ultimately weaken ISIS.
“ISIS could find itself locked in a conflict with three different parties: the Egyptian state, al-Qaeda and the local residents in Sinai,” said ex-Egyptian Islamist Mohei Eissa.
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly