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The attackers opened fire shortly after the preacher started his sermon during Friday prayers at the packed Rawda Mosque in the restive Egyptian province of northern Sinai.
Brandishing an Isis flag and shooting automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, they fired at terrified worshippers who scrambled towards exits already blocked by the gunmen.
“As soon as the gunfire started every one ran and people bumped into each other,” said Magdy Rizk, a wounded survivor who spoke from his hospital bed in a televised interview. “I was able to spot masked men wearing military uniforms.”
By the time the armed group of 25 to 30 men left the mosque some twenty minutes later, more than 300 people had been killed in the deadliest attack by jihadis against Egyptians in the country’s modern history.
The escalation adds to pressures on the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president and former military man who overthrew his elected Islamist predecessor in a popularly-backed coup in 2013 and has vowed repeatedly to crush the jihadis. As his government seeks to attract investors and bring back tourists scared away by earlier attacks, the scale of the violence is likely to signal the potential for more instability making the authorities’ task more difficult.
In addition, the unprecedented carnage in a mosque against fellow Sunni Muslims is a worrying departure for the jihadis who seem to have expanded the list of targets they view as legitimate.
Isis in the Sinai has already killed more than a thousand soldiers and policemen; it has assassinated civilians it suspects of being informers, while cells on the mainland have staged bombings against churches killing dozens of Coptic Christians in the past year.
But still, to many Egyptians, the mosque attack evokes the sectarian bloodshed between Shia and Sunni Muslims that is more common in Iraq than in their own overwhelmingly Sunni country.
Analysts have pointed out that the al-Rawda mosque is frequented by Sufis, who belong to a mystical movement in Islam, and are seen as practising idolatry by militant Islamists. Isis beheaded two senior Sufi sheikhs in the Sinai a year ago and has issued threats against Sufi orders saying it would not tolerate their presence. Millions of Egyptians belong to Sufi orders.
Jantzen Garnett, Middle East analyst at the Navanti Group, said sectarian attacks by Isis affiliates against Sufis and Copts had increased over the past year as territory held by Isis in Syria and Iraq began to diminish under pressure from forces backed by the international coalition. He said the latest “spectacular” attack may serve to “signal to the international jihadi community that Sinai and Egypt are active fronts to continue their jihad as fronts in Syria and Iraq vanish”.
Some also point to competition between Isis and al-Qaeda over influence and recruits as the fortunes of the former wane in Syria and Iraq. Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, an analyst focusing on Islamist groups at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Soldiers of Islam, an al-Qaeda linked group in the Sinai, had recently called on Isis militants to abandon what it described as an apostate group.
“There is a message in the attack to competing groups and to Isis members considering switching allegiance saying that we are still powerful and capable of mounting big operations,” he said. “There is also a similar message to the international community telling them ‘we are still there.’”
Mr Beheiri said Isis will have known that many non-Sufi worshippers would be at the mosque, which draws a mixed congregation due to its large size and location on the main motorway across the northern Sinai. His view is that the choice of a Sufi mosque may help Isis justify its deed but that the real aim was asserting their continued presence in the Sinai and on the jihadi scene.
But while the group fighting the state in the northern Sinai is proving resilient, observers also point out that it has failed to make significant inroads beyond its main area of operations in the northeastern corner of the peninsula.
Michael Wahid Hanna, analyst at the Century Foundation in New York said that so far the group’s attacks “did not threaten the fabric of Egyptian society or the ability of the regime to sustain itself”.
But the area remains a festering sore with frequent lethal of attacks against police and army. Mr Sisi has promised to use “brute force” against the jihadis, but the military has been at war there since 2014.
Little is actually known about the nature of the battle conducted by the authorities in the Sinai because the area is off limits to journalists and information is tightly controlled. Mr Hanna said that there has been “little visibility” over the government’s military campaign in the Sinai even for its partners in the United States government.
“There is concern in the US about the nature of the counterinsurgency campaign and whether it is over-broad, heavy-handed and indiscriminate, because that kind of campaign often has perverse effects,” he said.