Terrorist Attack on Sufi Mosque in Northern Sinai Results in 305 Dead and Escalation

Sent On: 
Sun, 2017-11-26
Newsletter Number: 

Our condolences go out to the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on the Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, around 40 km west of el-Arish, North Sinai. With 305 dead and 128 wounded, this was the deadliest attack in Egypt in recent memory. A bomb exploded at the end of the Friday prayer, the precise moment with the highest number of mosque attendees. Attackers tried to block the roads leading away from the mosquewith burning vehicles, and they shot at people and ambulances surrounding the building. This was not the work of an individual lunatic but was evidently a planned massacre.


The attack came one week before the celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.


No one has claimed responsibility for this attack. However, given that the target was a Sufi mosque and hardline Islamists in Sinai regard Sufis as apostates because they revere saints and celebrate the day of death of their saints at their shrines (not unlike the practices found in Coptic Orthodoxy), the culprits will most likely be sought in these circles.


The Guardian wrote that “an Isis propaganda outlet had previously published an interview with the commander of its ‘morality police’ in Sinai who said their ‘first priority was to combat the manifestations of polytheism including Sufism’ (Adham Youssef, The Guardian, November 25, 2017).


Sufis in particular hold the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet in great esteem. For example, in Sayida Zaynab, a quarter in Cairo with a large and active Sufi population around the Sufi Sayida Zaynab mosque, streets are full with memorabilia for this celebration. Also at other Sufi-affiliated mosques throughout the country, great attention is given to the birthday of the Prophet.



Memorabilia sold in celebration of the Prophet's birthday in Sayida Zaynab district, Cairo. Photo credits: Cornelis Hulsman.


Most streams in Islam approve of the commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday, but Wahhabis and Salafis oppose this practice, deeming it bid‘ah, the term used to condemn superfluous religious innovations.


This attack was not the first one on a Sufi mosque. After the 2011 revolt against president Mubarak, churches, but also some Sufi mosques, were attacked. In later years, Sufis played a major role in the opposition to Islamist president Morsi. Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayib, is a Sufi and supported then-General al-Sisi in deposing president Morsi in 2013. Sufis are well represented in many other high-ranking religious positions in the country.


The attack on the Rawdah mosque was widely denounced by Egyptian and non-Egyptian political and religious leaders. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised the Egyptian people that he would respond with “brute force.” Egyptian media wrote about bombardments of fighter planes and the killing of terrorists.


The attack on the Sufi mosque and the government’s responses mark a major escalation in the struggle in northern Sinai between Egypt’s security forces and violent Islamist groups, whereby hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed, but also scores of judges, Christians and other civilians. Please also keep an eye out for the upcoming op-ed by Jasper Kiepe, wherein he explores Egypt’s blockade of Gaza. Nothing in the past years and current responses to this brutal attack indicate that much effort has been made to de-escalate. Surely militants need to be fought, but also, efforts need to be made to reduce the likelihood that Islamist-leaning civilians join Islamist militant groups.


November 26, 2017

Drs. Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report