Behind the Sinai mosque attack

There is allegedly sound cooperation on intelligence between Egypt and Israel, intent on fighting Islamic terrorism operating so close to their borders.

The Rawda mosque in Sinai after a gun and bombing attack which killed at least 305 worshippers (photo credit: STR / AFP)
The Rawda mosque in Sinai after a gun and bombing attack which killed at least 305 worshippers
(photo credit: STR / AFP)
More than 300 worshipers were killed in cold blood during last Friday’s prayers in the Rawda mosque in the small locality of Bir Abed in northern Sinai. It was not because of the way they practiced their religion or because they were Sawarka tribesmen, as has been suggested.
They were targeted by fellow Muslims, terrorists who adhere to the teachings of Hassan el Banna and Sayed Qutob, founders of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, not only Daesh but all radical Islamic organizations, from al-Qaida to al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and others follow these teachings, based on illustrious Islamic thinkers from the dawn of Islam.
They decreed that If Muslim society does not strictly follow the Sharia, religious law, this can be considered takfir, apostasy, and it is legitimate to use violence to restore its full implementation.
In pursuit of that goal, extremist groups have murdered more than a million and half men, women and children since the eighties, not only in Islamic countries but in Africa and the West.
Last month 350 people died in an al-Shabaab attack on a Mogadishu hotel. Mumbai, Nairobi, Istanbul, London, Paris, Nice and Boston are just a few names in the long list of murderous attacks. Then there are the bloody wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – ethnic and religious conflicts with no end in sight.
Jihadi terrorists in northern Sinai have sworn allegiance to the now defunct caliphate and present a crucial challenge to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and to the region.
Immediately after his election in 2014 he asked for America’s help in training his army and in formulating a global strategy against world terrorism.
Though Egypt had been a longtime faithful ally and indeed the linchpin of the pragmatic Sunni front against Iran, Obama turned him down and even suspended part of the military assistance package. The Rawda carnage should serve as yet another wake-up call for the West, which is still reluctant to help Egypt.
With few options left to him, Sisi turned to Russia, which was only too happy to provide weapons and instructors.
Unfortunately, Russian army tactics are not adapted to desert guerrilla warfare. Putin had suppressed Chechnya’s Islamic uprising through massive bombing raids which destroyed almost completely the Chechnya capital Grozny.
The situation in Sinai is vastly different.
There is allegedly sound cooperation on intelligence between Egypt and Israel, intent on fighting Islamic terrorism operating so close to their borders, but it is done discreetly due to the sensitivity of the issue in the present regional context.
The Bir el-Abed attack is a stark demonstration of the problems confronting the Egyptian Army, first and foremost the lack of operational intelligence.
According to reports, five off-road vehicles laden with weapons and explosives converged on the mosque, having traveled undetected dozens if not hundreds of kilometers through open desert. That’s a serious security lapse.
Barely two weeks ago Sisi appointed a new commander in chief tasked with reorganizing the security apparatus in Sinai, the better to fight the insurgents, with no notable results so far. The once-famed Egyptian security services closely associated with the regime were dealt a near-death blow following the toppling of Mubarak in 2011.
Reviled and harassed in the streets by an angry population, with no support from the police, itself under attack, and left to their own devices by the regime, many operatives just ran away, especially in Sinai. Islamic terrorism in that region grew apace; Jihadi groups attempted to set up short-lived Islamic emirates in El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, which were defeated at great cost.
The pipeline bringing natural gas to Israel was bombed time and time again, with the army helpless to defend it, until the flow finally stopped. In the past, there were informers in every house and every tent in the Sinai, but no more; despite Sisi’s best efforts to restore the situation.
Many Beduin are not keen to assist a regime which does nothing for them and neglects much needed infrastructure. Parliament is addressing the issue, but programs to develop the region are not being implemented for lack of funds.
The army has been unable to stop the steady supply of vehicles, explosives, sophisticated equipment and even antitank Cornet missiles reaching Daesh in Sinai through an intricate smuggling route originating from Libya, made possible by the fall of Gaddafi and the plundering of his vast stockpile.
The Libyan army of Gen. Khalifa Haftar cooperates closely with Cairo to secure their long common border. Convoys bringing arms, explosives and vehicles to the Sinai rebels are regularly discovered and destroyed, but many others get through, even, so It is rumored, crossing the Suez Canal with the help of handsomely rewarded officials.
President Sisi swore to avenge the Bir Abed attack and send the air force to attack the terrorists. Two of the vehicles used were destroyed with their occupants and alleged terrorist sites were bombed.
Perhaps a new impetus will be given to the fight against terrorism.
But the cold-blooded massacre in the mosque raises a larger issue. Daesh, like other radical terrorist organizations, claims that all its actions are sanctioned by Sharia. ISIS even presented ancient texts as evidence.
Islamic sages and the highest religious authorities find their claim hard to refute.
They condemned the slaughter in the strongest terms, but so long as the perpetrators believe in the One God, the Koran and the tenets of Islam, they refrain from calling them infidels who are not following the path of Islam.
No voice is heard saying that barbaric acts which were the norm in the early Middle Ages can no longer be accepted.
Although there is the beginning of a much-needed debate among religious authorities on the issue, so far this has been kept low key.
Meanwhile, there has been no change in the way the Sharia is taught in schools and institutes of higher learning throughout the Islamic world, though in Egypt Sisi is making a praiseworthy effort to eliminate extremist trends from textbooks. His efforts to enlist Al Azhar University in his quest for reforms have failed so far.
It is noteworthy that almost all comments after the Bir Abed attack focused on the army’s failure to obtain reliable information in advance of the attack and the 30 long minutes after the assault started for it to respond, but these did not address the real issue. Islamic State may have been defeated, but radical Islam is here to stay.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.