It is not the first time that Egypt has seen attacks on mosques or other places of worship. But no one should be left in any confusion – Friday’s massacre was unprecedented. The Egyptian media are reporting in excess of 300 people dead, with scores more injured, as a result of the multi-pronged attack on the mosque in northern Sinai – and Egypt is now in the midst of a mourning period, a watershed in its modern history.
There are several points that ought to be stated from the outset. Even as the numbers of the dead were being released, and Egyptians were lamenting the greatest terrorist attack on their soil, the Trump administration was tweeting about walls and travel bans. There is, of course, no suggestion that DC will be placing Egypt on that travel ban list, nor should that be suggested, because the premise is absurd.
The primary target of radical Islamist groups is, and always has been, other Muslims. Muslims are the principal victims – and Muslims, more than any other group, are the ones who are fighting them more than anyone else. Rather than problematise them, we ought to recognise that Muslims are an integral – the most fundamental – part of the campaign against radical extremism. Of course, Mr Trump, while offering his condolences to Mr al-Sisi, a close ally, couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that the victims of this latest atrocity were Muslims.
Another key point is that while it may be tempting to describe this brutal attack as an extremist group attacking another minority in a Muslim-majority country, we ought to be very careful about falling into that trap. Sufis aren’t a sect of Muslims; rather, Sufism is an integral part of mainstream Sunni Islam. Extremists may deny that, but there is no reason why the rest of us ought to; historically, all normative expressions of Islam took for granted the discipline of Sufism as a spiritual science within Islamic thought. That radicals deem Sufi orders, or those affiliated to them, as renegades is not in keeping with the heritage of Sunni Islam, whether in Egypt or elsewhere.
At the same time, it is entirely likely that this mosque and its worshippers were at least partially targeted because of their acceptance of that traditional form of Islamic thought. It is also quite possible that there is a more political reason at work – that the villagers rejected any co-operation with radical groups, as was reported in some Egyptian media, and thus they became a target for this brutality. Over the coming days, we shall learn more.
It remains important for Cairo to respond with wisdom, with care and with determination. But over the past few years, Cairo has focused on almost a purely “hard” security response in Sinai – certainly a critical part of any comprehensive approach. Yet Egypt needs a much wider, multifaceted response, taking on board all the vulnerabilities that the people of Sinai currently face. Alas, it is unlikely that in the aftermath of such a brutal attack, there will be much appetite for considering a wider strategy. Egypt mourns and its population is understandably furious.
There is one more point that must be emphasised. These types of radical groups are not focused on one type of victim. Rather, they have now shown beyond doubt that they are willing to attack all whom they deem to be in the way of the fulfilment of their goals – Muslim and non-Muslims alike. This kind of scourge, alas, has been at work for a long while and mosques in Iraq are in ruins because of it.
But as we all take stock of how to combat this threat, it is important to remember that such entities have come and gone. Societies all around the world have had to deal with terrorism and those societies continue to stand. The likes of those who carried out these despicable attacks have struck before, and while their effects were felt, they have never been victorious. How quickly they are overcome depends on our collective wisdom and resolve.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London and author of A Revolution Undone.