Analysis

In the Face of Massacre, Egypt Scrambles to Improve Its Counter-terrorism Efforts

Among the many questions arising from the attack that left over 300 people dead in the northern Sinai is whether such a devastating attack could have been prevented

A burned truck is seen outside Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshippers, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. Friday's assault was Egypt's deadliest attack by Islamic extremists in the country's modern history, a grim milestone in a long-running fight against an insurgency led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.(AP Photo/Tarek Samy)
Tarek Samy/AP

Among the many questions that arise from the massacre in the mosque near El Arish on Friday, one is whether mosques have become a target for Islamic State-affiliated terror groups in Sinai, which would present particular challenges to the Egyptian government in dealing with terror. Another is whether the attack, whose death toll stands at 305, could have been prevented.

Most of the media in Egypt toed the official line, stressed in messages conveyed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, of not giving in to terror and of maintaining the unity of the Egyptian people. Sissi also pledged continuing massive action by the Egyptian army against the terror organizations to damage their infrastructure in Sinai, especially in northern Sinai, the base of most of the terrorists who have perpetrated attacks in recent years.

The Egyptian daily El Tahrir, considered an independent paper that does not hesitate to criticize the establishment, quoted a number of former senior military and security officials saying that the assault on the mosque was unexpected. “This leads to two conclusions. Either this is an essential change in the strategy of those groups that are turning the mosques into a target, or it is a response to pressure by the Egyptian army on ISIS in Sinai,” wrote a retired general, Jamal Mazlum. This pressure led ISIS operatives to choose a target sending the message that the organization is still alive and can attack anywhere, Mazlum added.

Egyptians attend on November 26, 2017 in the village of Saud, in the centre of al-Husseiniya in the country's northern province of al-Sharqiya, the funeral of Fethy Ismail, the Muadhin of al-Rawda mosque, who died in an attack by militants near the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish.
Earlier in the week armed attackers killed over 300 worshippers in a bomb and gun assault on the packed mosque in Egypt's restive North Sinai province, in the deadliest attack the country has witnessed. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

A senior Egyptian police officer said the attack could have been prevented if the Egyptian security apparatus had been able to take preemptive steps. The officer, Mahmound Sayad, called for the establishment of a new “preventive security” apparatus with “armed and well-equipped personnel, including off-road vehicles and smart cameras” installed in strategic spots. Other officers said more power should be given to Bedouin tribal leaders to increase their influence on the civilian population.

The heads of the Bedouin tribes in Sinai on Sunday called on the Egyptian government to improve the lives of civilians in Sinai to prevent hundreds from joining ISIS due to economic strife and lack of government support. One tribal leader said some of the perpetrators of Friday’s attack were not Egyptian and had come from abroad to Sinai to join ISIS.

The Egyptian government announced support for the families of those killed and injured in Friday’s attack and government ministers arrived in the area to launch development and employment programs for the local Bedouin.

Egyptians walking past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, November 24, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP