At least 235 people have been killed and 109 injured in a militant attack targeting a mosque in North Sinai on Friday afternoon, according to figures released by Egypt’s Public Prosecution, making this the deadliest militant attack in Egyptian history.
The attack occurred during Friday prayers at the Sufi-affiliated Rawda mosque, located in the Rawda village in Bir al-Abd, 40 km west of the North Sinai capital of Arish.
Eyewitnesses told Mada Masr that the attack began when armed militants detonated an explosive device near the entrance of the mosque as people were leaving after prayers. The explosion was reportedly followed by gunfire from several locations, targeting those trying to escape the attack. According to eyewitness accounts, militants were parked in cars at a distance from the mosque’s exit.
A large number of those injured were transported to hospitals in Bir al-Abd, Arish and the neighboring governorate of Ismailia, a medical source in the North Sinai branch of the Ambulance Authority told Mada Masr, emphasizing that priority was given to those injured.
The source also said that there has not been a final tally of the victims, since many of those injured were transported to hospitals by their families in private cars.
Following the attack, the Health Ministry raised the emergency code in all North Sinai and Ismailia hospitals to the highest level possible.
Local residents from Bir al-Abd told Mada Masr that the mosque was filled with bodies of the dead worshipers, while imams from different mosques in Bir al-Abd and Arish called on locals to donate blood to the cities’ hospitals.
Military troops closed the international Arish–Bir al-Abd highway, as security personnel conducted sweeps in the areas surrounding the attack. General Prosecutor Nabil Sadek ordered a team from Ismailia Prosecution and State Security Prosecution to begin investigations immediately.
A security source told Sky News that two drones destroyed two vehicles in the Risha desert area close to Rawda that were carrying militants, killing 15 of them. Security sources have stated that over 20 militants were involved in the attack, according to the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The motive behind the attack remains unclear, and no group has claimed responsibility for it.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presided over a closed meeting attended by the defense and interior ministers, as well as the heads of the general and military intelligence bodies, Egyptian state media has reported. At the conclusion of the meeting, Sisi addressed the attack in a televised speech.
“I extend my condolences to the Egyptian people and to the martyrs’ families in Sinai, and I pray for the recovery of the injured,” Sisi said.
“We will respond with harsh force. We are undertaking real efforts to confront terrorism on behalf of the region and the world,” the president added.
Sisi ordered compensatory payments to be distributed to those killed and injured in the attack, with LE200,000 be paid to the family of each deceased victim and LE50,000 to every injured one. The Egyptian government also declared a three-day mourning period on Friday.
Rawda is home to the Gaririya Sufi order, one of the largest Sufi orders in North Sinai. The village’s mosque that was targeted on Friday is one of the main mosques affiliated with the order.
The order’s name derives from Sheikh Eid Abu Garir — the order’s founder — who hails from Sinai’s Sawarka tribe and the Garirat clan, which resides in the Bir al-Abd area.
The Province of Sinai, a militant group affiliated to the Islamic State, has threatened followers of Sufi orders in different areas of North Sinai, including Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and villages west of Arish, where Bir al-Abd lies, demanding they stop certain rituals, including visiting Sufi shrines and performing zikr, a ceremony in which Sufi Muslims chant rhythmically in prayer.
In 2013, militants detonated an explosive device targeting the shrine of a Sufi sheikh in the Sinai village of Mazar, near Bir al-Abd where the Friday attack took place. In the same year, militants bombed another shrine in the Maghara area in central Sinai.
In 2016, Suleiman Abu Harraz and Aqtifan al-Mansoury, two prominent Sufi sheikhs, were kidnapped in North Sinai and were subsequently decapitated by the Province of Sinai, who referred to the sheikhs as priests in its statement claiming the execution.
The Province of Sinai has recently been active to the west of Arish, where it has conducted a number of operations against military and police forces, including attacks on security vehicles using explosives and the assassination of security personnel. The most recent incident in the area took place in September, when a security convoy was attacked on the Arish-Qantara International Road and 18 members of the convoy were killed.
Local media puts the village’s population at approximately 2,500 people, meaning that one of every ten people in the village would have been killed in Friday’s attack.