By Lela Gilbert
On Friday November 24, the first news alerts from the Middle East were tragic but not particularly surprising. Assailants wearing military garb, some carrying ISIS flags, had struck Egypt once again.
As many as 30 gunmen had roared up to their target in several SUVs and, just as the imam began his Friday sermon, a suicide bomber struck. An explosion shattered the quiet morning and cued the killers, who rushed inside and opened fire.
When the assailants fled the area just minutes later, they left behind a scene of indescribable carnage.
It was also unsurprising that the attack took place on the Sinai Peninsula, where a homicidal contingent of insurgents has entrenched itself.
In recent years, those ISIS assailants have launched their incursions from their Sinai turf, including bombings of Coptic Christian churches. In early 2017, they assaulted a bus of Coptic children on a Sinai holiday, killing 28.
Also in the Sinai, ISIS has massacred scores of Egyptian soldiers, relentlessly defying the authority of Egypt’s government and its president, former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But Friday’s attack was different in several ways. Most notably, it was the first terrorist attack on a mosque in Egypt — Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd, Northern Sinai.
The victims were all unarmed Muslim men and boys who had gathered to recite their Friday prayers.
Another startling factor was the death toll, which continued to rise throughout Saturday and several days thereafter. By Wednesday, November 29, it had reached 311 with at least 109 injured, making the Al-Rawda Mosque operation the largest terrorist attack in Egypt’s history.
But why a mosque? Why a Sufi mosque, to be precise?
In an Al Arabiya report, political analyst Mohmmad Sabry explained that Sufis pose a threat to extremist groups like ISIS because, “The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organization in a way the military hasn’t been able to do…”
Although the attack on a mosque came as a shock to some observers, as I reflected upon it, I thought I remembered some reports about similar activities in Pakistan.
I mentioned this to my friend Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament and the author of “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.” Ms. Ispahani’s excellent book offers valuable details about the formation of radical groups and what inflames their violence — not only in Pakistan but well beyond.
She explained that in Pakistan, Sufi mosques are not only visited by Muslims, but also by Hindus and people of other faiths. “The Sufi saints are seen as open to the prayers of all who come. This gives the shrines a very different feel from the austere mosques of most Sunni schools.”
Such an open-minded approach, however, makes Sufi mosques a target for Islamic fundamentalists “who criticize the Sufis’ popular character, which in their view, does not accurately reflect the teachings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.”
Farahnaz Ispahani then reminded me that earlier this year a Sufi holy site in Pakistan — the sacred shrine at Sehwan Sharif — “was the site of another violent suicide bombing, also allegedly carried out by the Islamic State or ISIS. At least 88 civilians were killed and more than 343 were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself in the historic shrine, which was built in 1356.”
Again and again, throughout the world, thanks to such vicious and deadly behavior, the ideology of ISIS — along with other Sunni Islamist radical factions such as al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and al Shabaab — has been exposed.
As for Egypt’s response to the Al Rawda mosque attack, The New York Times reported, “The attack…underscored the failure of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has justified his harsh crackdown on political freedom in the name of crushing Islamic militancy, to deliver on his promises of security.”
The reality is that not only Coptic Christians — who, along with the military and police, thus far have borne the brunt of ISIS attacks in Egypt — but also Sufis and other Muslim sects are at risk. This has clearly intensified President Sisi’s struggle.
Indeed, as the mosque’s death toll has crept up, Sisi’s intense efforts to gain control of the Sinai have been increasingly scrutinized in the days following the attack. In fact, the entire Middle East is on edge.
A conspiracy-minded columnist for the Palestinian Authority’s official newspaper “has claimed that Israel and the US committed the Nov. 24 attack on the al-Rawda mosque in the Sinai Peninsula that killed  people.”
Meanwhile, neighboring Israel’s defense establishment has “… expressed its sympathies and, as always, is willing to lend a hand to any country in order to help fight terror,” an Israeli security official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s how it was in this case, and how it will also be in the future,” he added.
Most recently, in an unambiguous declaration to his troops, Sisi has portentously ordered the Egyptian army and police forces to restore stability and security in the Sinai Peninsula “within three months, using ‘utmost force.’”
Will Sisi succeed in accomplishing this nearly insurmountable task?
Time will tell. But in Egypt’s restive neighborhood and beyond, more than a few anxious observers are watching, waiting, and wishing him well.