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Deadly Attack In Egypt Leaves At Least 235 Dead

ELISE HU, HOST:

Egypt has experienced its deadliest terror attack in modern history. The target was a Sufi mosque in a rural part of the Sinai Peninsula. It was filled with families gathering for Friday prayers. At least 230 people were killed. Earlier today, I called Samer Al-Atrush for the details on what happened. He's deputy bureau chief in Cairo for the news agency AFP.

SAMER AL-ATRUSH: We are told by witnesses and officials that gunmen arrived in about four all-terrain vehicles, four by four, surrounded the mosque, planted the bomb, and then set it off. And when the panicked worshippers were trying to flee they gunned them down. And then they set the worshiper's cars alight, and then they used them to block exit and entry routes to the mosque. The last verified death toll that was given by the state prosecutor's office is 235 dead, 109 wounded. It is the deadliest attack in living memory in Egypt. It surpassed the October 2015 attack in which the Islamic State group planted a bomb onboard of a Russian airliner and blew it up over the Sinai province while they were leaving a resort, killing 224 people who were onboard.

HU: Has anyone claimed responsibility?

AL-ATRUSH: No one has claimed responsibility so far. The main suspect is the Islamic State group for several reasons. It's the main militant group operating in North Sinai. It is also a group that has attacked Sufis before. Now, this mosque is associated with a Sufi order.

HU: And who are the Sufis?

AL-ATRUSH: It's quite a large definition. But, I mean, basically it's a - what people call a mystical branch of Sunni Islam. They practice several things that people in the Islamic State and other groups who are inspired by Salafism, which is a dominant school of thought in Saudi Arabia, view as heretical or unorthodox. For example, they seek the intercession of saints in their prayers. When they turn for - just to pray to God, they would, say, do it for this saint's sake. Or sometimes they'd just, you know, address the saints, whether living or dead.

For the Salafi, an Islamic State group, they don't exactly follow what - the religion you'll find in Saudi Arabia. But the same theological school is called Salafism. They view this as polytheism. They believe that you can only pray to God, and that if you involve anyone else in the prayers that makes you a polytheist and a heretic.

The Islamic State takes that a step further and actually attacks them. Last year, they kidnapped and then beheaded a 90-year-old Sufi sheikh in Sinai. They accused him of practicing witchcraft, which is one of the common accusations that they would level against Sufis. Then they issued a interview with the head of their - what they call their morality police in Sinai. It was published in their weekly propaganda newsletter, al-Naba, in which the entire interview was about Sufism and how they intend to combat this. And he said, our priority is to combat the manifestations of polytheism. And that includes Sufis.

HU: And we should mention this ISIS affiliate that is suspected of being behind the attack has been operating in the northern Sinai for years now. So why hasn't the government in Egypt been able to root it out?

AL-ATRUSH: Right. This insurgency has been taking place since 2013. Initially, the Egyptian military was perhaps not adapted to an insurgency of this scale and this determination. They have since then, however, developed their tactics. And what we've seen is less massive attacks against the military and police targets in Sinai and the increasing resort to more IED and sniping. On the other hand, the Islamic State has begun increasingly targeting what you might call soft targets. Since December 2016, they launched a campaign against Christians in Egypt, killing more than a hundred in church bombings in the mainland. They've also targeted Christians in North Sinai, causing hundreds of them to flee. And they are unable to return. So that's seen by some analysts as a sign that being pressed by the military and police, they're just lashing out at easier opportunity targets.

HU: The death toll of this attack is enormous. What is the reaction that you're seeing there in Cairo, in the capital?

AL-ATRUSH: I think people are shocked. This is unprecedented both in its scale in the sense of the casualties and also in the choice of targets. They targeted a mosque full of elderly women - elderly men, excuse me - and children. And this just hasn't happened in Egypt. They've targeted Christians. They've targeted Sufis in other situations. Obviously, they've targeted policemen. They've targeted tourists. But there's a shock. There's complete - a complete sense of shock. And there also seems to be - the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave a speech in which he said that he vowed to respond with, quote, "brutal force." At this point you sense that, you know, what else are they going to do? They've said that this is going to be a long-term war of attrition. We'll see results soon. But then these major attacks happen, and it's more of the same, I think, for them.

HU: Samer Al-Atrush, deputy bureau chief in Cairo for the news agency AFP. Samer, thank you.

AL-ATRUSH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.