The massacre in Bir Al-Abed is an attack on civilization
However, the response to last week’s cowardly attack that left more than 300 people dead, one third of them children, should be more of steely resolve and determination to confront the perpetrators of this kind of atrocity and those who propagate the ideas that legitimize such savage carnage. Though no organization has taken immediate responsibility for the attack, it has all the hallmarks of the Daesh-affiliated “Wilayat Al-Sinai” (the “Governorate of Sinai“), which is one of the deadliest among those terrorist groups across the Middle East that have pledged allegiance to the group. The targeting of a Sufi mosque — Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that is regarded by some fundamentalist Muslims as heretical — also suggests the involvement of Daesh.
There is a growing fear that the more Daesh is on the run and losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the more it will look to shift its operations to elsewhere in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Many Daesh fighters are trapped between the border of those two countries, leaving them very limited options. They can continue fighting, though with no prospect of recovering or even surviving, or they can lay down their weapons and surrender. The third option, which spells danger to other countries, is that many of these fighters, including foreign ones, might disperse across the region, or return to their countries of origin and regroup in order to prepare further terrorist attacks, including those of the type that we witnessed in Sinai last Friday.
Restricting the probability of repeat attacks such as the ones in Egypt requires an integrated approach, which should include maintaining the momentum of the military coalition that is defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
For various reasons, despite more than three years of military operations, the Egyptian security forces haven’t succeeded in quashing the Wilayat Al-Sinai insurgents, who consequently are becoming more audacious in their attacks. The group generally targets Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai, but has also claimed an attack on a tourist site in southern Sinai, as well as deadly attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria that left at least 44 people killed and more than 100 others injured. In 2015, the organization carried out what before Friday’s massacre had been the deadliest terror attack to date when it brought down a Russian airplane, killing the 224 passengers and crew onboard.
What is currently taking place in the Sinai peninsula is the result of domestic factors as much as international ones. Many of the indigenous people, mainly Bedouins, feel that their land rights have been violated and they have been generally excluded from decision-making roles in administrating the peninsula by the security forces and central government. Consequently, they have resorted to an alternative modus operandi of running a parallel system to the legal one, including in trade and the imposition of law and order. Add to this Sinai’s geographical remoteness from the power center in Cairo, and the result is that this huge and sparsely populated desert has turned into an ideal breeding ground for extremism.
Moreover, developments following the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade not only spread extremism, but also increased the availability of military hardware and ammunition, especially from Libya. In the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, huge stockpiles of weapons became available, and considerable amounts of these ended up in the hands of Islamists in the Sinai. The level of military sophistication involved in the Al-Rawda mosque attack should be a source of worry. It takes planning, organization, training and equipment to execute such an operation carried out by dozens of people. The terrorists’ ability to do so without being detected and with such horrendous consequences requires a rethink not only in Egypt but in all countries that face similar threats.
As to be expected, the international community has been united in condemning the attack: From the Arab League, to governments in the UK, US, France, Russia and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, there has been a universal expression of revulsion at the massacre. But if extremism is to be curtailed, this worldwide denunciation should be translated into a plan of action to support those countries that have to deal with militancy on a daily basis.
Daesh’s dream of establishing their distorted version of a caliphate is fast disappearing behind the trail of destruction that they are leaving. Restricting the probability of repeat attacks such as the ones in Egypt requires an integrated approach, which should include maintaining the momentum of the military coalition that is defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and providing those terrorists who would like to disarm and abandon the organization a route back to their societies and rehabilitation. No less important must be moves to address the root causes that have led to the formation of these radical militant groups in the first place.
It is in this context that the recent call from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Islam to return to its pre-1979 days of “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples,” should be heeded and acted on without delay or hesitation.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.
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