At least 305 people were killed after militants detonated bombs and opened fire in a crowded mosque in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt—resulting in what officials are now calling the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack in modern history.
Egypt’s chief prosecutor said that 128 people were also wounded when more than two dozen assailants barged into the Al-Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed town. Gory images and videos from the scene showed bloodied bodies lined up against each other, and scenes of chaos as help started arriving. The mosque was connected with Sufi Muslims who practice a mystic version of Islam, which many extremist groups reject. And while no group has claimed responsibility for the violence, attackers were reportedly carrying the flag of the Islamic State terrorist group.
The Egyptian army has said that it has killed some of the attackers in an air raid, with the government promising that the attack “will not go unpunished.” In a televised speech, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said: “The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force.”
The attack marked a turning point in Egypt’s history, and especially how the north African nation has struggled to quell surging militant violence in the restive Sinai region. Since the ouster of president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, nearly a thousand security personnel —200 of them this year alone—have been killed in more than 1,700 terror attacks across the region, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. This is despite the fact that the region has been under extended military curfew since Oct. 2014.
The recent attack also showed the shifting tactics of extremists who have often targeted security officials besides Christians and their places of worship, instead of Muslims civilians and mosques. The onslaught also showcased the devastating capability of extremist groups like ISIS, and their propensity for carrying major attacks that deal a blow to the Egyptian government.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an extremist group which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, has established a stronghold in the region, targeting the government and enforcing a strict interpretation of sharia laws. In 2015, they took responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over Sinai, killing all 224 people—most of them tourists—on board. In October, an ambush on a convoy of Egyptian security personnel led to the killing of at least 59 officers.
The string of attacks, bombings, and airline disasters have dampened growth in the tourism sector, a crucial source of hard currency for the economy.
The current problems in the Sinai region are also connected to the wider political and socioeconomic reality facing Egypt. A long-marginalized governorate, the Bedouin tribes that populate the region have constantly faced neglect, discrimination, and abuse. As violence escalated in the post-Arab Spring 2011 revolution, scorched earth counterterrorism efforts have resulted in arbitrary arrests and torture of thousands of people, according to a Brookings Institution report.
As Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy said, Sisi would do better to heed the simmering anger in the peninsula and put into action the development plans that have now stalled for decades. Sisi, she wrote, “needs to seriously commit to antidotes to terrorism: jobs, dignity and a life worth living. For Egyptians everywhere, especially in North Sinai, he has failed to deliver on all three.”