At least 305 people were killed in an attack on a crowded Sufi mosque in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Friday that officials are blaming on a militant group linked to ISIS. Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has vowed revenge and launched multiple airstrikes he says were targeting militants fleeing the attack. For more we speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo, who says Egypt faces its “worst wave of repression” in modern history as “Sisi has used the war on terror to crack down on political freedoms.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Egypt has declared three days of national mourning after at least 300 people were killed in an attack on a crowded Sufi mosque in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Friday. Egyptian officials are calling it the deadliest terror attack in Egypt’s modern history. More than two dozen attackers wearing military combat uniforms detonated a bomb inside the mosque, opened fire with machine guns on fleeing worshipers, and set cars ablaze to stop people from being able to escape. Among the victims were at least 27 children. Officials are blaming the attack on a militant group linked to ISIS. This is Mohamed Abdel Fattah, the imam of the al-Rawdah Sufi mosque, describing Friday’s attack.
MOHAMED ABDEL FATTAH: About two minutes after I climbed onto the platform, I heard what sounded like an explosion outside the mosque, and then some people came inside firing at all of the worshipers. Of course, as soon as people heard the firing, they all started to run. Some people climbed onto the platform. I saw them piled on top of each other. And they, the assailants, were hitting anybody and everybody. Anybody who was breathing. I did not see their numbers. I did not see what they looked like. I could only feel their presence inside the mosque.
AMY GOODMAN: Over the last year, ISIS-linked militants in Egypt have also repeatedly targeted Coptic Christians, bombing two Coptic churches and opening fire on a bus headed to a monastery. Within hours after Friday’s attack, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi appeared on television, vowing revenge for the attack. Only minutes later, Egyptian warplanes carried out multiple airstrikes in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. The military says they were targeting militants fleeing the attack.
ABDEL FATTAH AL SISI: The military and police will return security and stability with absolute power in the coming short period of time. This is our retaliation. We will respond to this attack with brutal strength to encounter these terrorist extremists, the Takfiris.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Cairo where we are joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you lay out for us what you understand happened on Friday, and what has been the response since?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it is as you described it. About 25 to 30 militants arrived as the sermon, the Friday prayer, was taking place. They arrived in five four-wheel drive vehicles, positioned themselves outside the main door and the 12 windows of the mosque, set off explosives in the mosque, and then began opening fire on the worshipers who were trying to flee. They torched several cars outside to prevent people from escaping. They fired on ambulances that had arrived on the scene. And we have this horrific death toll of 305 people killed.
So this is a very, very highly coordinated attack. All indications point to the Islamic State affiliate in Sinai as being responsible for this, although there hasn’t been an official claim of responsibility. And it looks like there are largely two reasons why this mosque was targeted. One is, in the past year, as the Islamic State has targeted Sufis in the area, most notably killing a leading Sufi religious scholar, beheading him and posting pictures of it online. There was an ISIS commander also who singled out that area of Sinai as being one of the places where Sufis live, that the group wanted to or intended to eradicate.
And several reports have come out now that militants have stormed the village several times as recently as last week, warning the residents not to allow Sufi rituals to take place there, but also not to coordinate with the police and the Army. The tribe from that area, the Sawarka, are in conflict with the Islamic State. So that also looks like it was a main motivating factor for them to attack this area.
And with all of these threats that have been made against this village, the residents themselves had reportedly set up their own civilian checkpoints to try and protect themselves. And even so, this attack seems to have taken place with relative ease by the militants, and we have this very bloody death toll. This is a village of only 2,500 people, so you’re talking about nearly one in ten people from this village, from this community, being killed. And there are reports now that they are being buried in mass graves.
AMY GOODMAN: The media often refers to Sufism, Sharif, as a sect, a minority group. Can you talk to us about this religious group?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I mean, you shouldn’t even really say a Sufi mosque. Most people would not identify in that way here. This was a mosque that was frequented by Sufis and non-Sufis alike. It had a center where Sufi rituals were practiced. Sufis are not a sect of Muslims. They are not a minority group. They are an integral part of mainstream Sunni Islam. For centuries, Sufism has been accepted as an integral part of mainstream Islam.
Many leading theologians are Sufi. The head of al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic authority, is Sufi. So calling the Rawdah mosque a Sufi mosque is a bit misleading. It was frequented by Sufis and non-Sufis alike. This was also a fact that I’m sure — the attackers also knew they were killing Sunni Muslims and this was why this was very shocking. It’s the first major militant attack on a Muslim congregation. It marks kind of a new phase in who they are targeting. And it may, in some way, change — public anger may increase towards them in Sinai that would help in this conflict.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who is the IS affiliate in Sinai and what is Sisi’s strategy in Sinai? And talk about it just for people who are not even familiar with the map, how Sinai fits into Egyptian politics.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Sinai is a peninsula that is attached to mainstream Egypt. It is technically in Asia, not in Africa. And this was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, up until 1979 or 1980 when they withdrew following the peace treaty. But the region has seen a lot of militancy, especially in the last few years. The Islamic State affiliate that we’re talking about really is the outgrowth of a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which first appeared on the scene in Sinai in 2011.
Back then, they were attacking mostly Israel. They were attacking a gas pipeline that led to Israel. They stepped up their attacks as did other Islamist militant groups, in 2013, following the overthrow by Sisi of President Mohamed Morsi in July of that year. They began attacking police and military installations, claiming responsibility for several high profile attacks.
Then in 2014, they pledged allegiance to ISIS. They called themselves Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai Province. And we saw since then a ramping up of these large-scale attacks on civilians. They claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015 that killed all 224 people on board. They’ve launched a very violent campaign against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority over the past year. We have seen bombs ripping through churches in Cairo and other cities that have killed dozens. And now we see this latest attack, the first of its kind, on a mosque.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, on Friday, President Trump tweeted, “Will be calling the President of Egypt in a short while to discuss the tragic terrorist attack, with so much loss of life. We have to get TOUGHER AND SMARTER than ever before, and we will. Need the WALL, need the BAN! God bless the people of Egypt.” That was President Trump’s tweet before he called Sisi. Can you talk about the US relationship with Egypt, Trump’s relationship with Sisi?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Trump — the US relationship with Egypt has long been one of unquestioned support, with Egypt as the second largest recipient of aid from the US, second only to Israel. And that support has continued through successive governments. So through Mubarak for 30 years, through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, through Mohamed Morsi, and now through Sisi. I mean, there has been slight variations, but essentially, the support has always been there.
Sisi, in response to this, as we heard in that clip, said he would respond with brute force and he would avenge the martyrs. And already, we’re hearing of airstrikes happening in Sinai. But this is really a continuation of the same exact kind of approach, conventional warfare, security approach that is failing and is maybe exacerbating the crisis. I mean, much of Sinai already has been under emergency law since 2014. There are tens of thousands of soldiers there. There are army tanks, helicopters. There’s heavy armor that has been deployed in the area.
And despite all of that, there has been very few tangible results. The government keeps claiming every day — you see almost every day in reports in newspapers of militants captured and killed in Sinai. If you go to the Facebook page of the Army, they have claimed by now to have killed about 3,000 militants, which is much more than they originally said existed. But it is impossible to verify these claims. Journalists are not allowed to go to northern Sinai, haven’t been for over three years now. So it’s very hard to understand what is happening on the ground.
Meanwhile, Egypt and Sisi is spending billions of dollars signing these massive arms deals for everything from German submarines to Russian helicopters to French fighter jets and an aircraft carrier. First of all, this is a country that is suffering an economic crisis and spends very little on healthcare and on education. But secondly, critics say these are weaponry that could be used in conventional warfare and is not applicable to this kind of counterterrorism conflict that they are facing.
And finally, the support of the local population in Sinai is key to winning this kind of conflict, but the military has engaged in very heavy-handed tactics, and local tribes there. Residents of Sinai have long felt discriminated against, but this latest campaign has been particularly brutal. There has been these indiscriminate military tactics that have resulted in civilian casualties. There are multiple accounts of extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions and torture. Houses have been razed and people forcibly displaced. Entire villages have been destroyed. The treatment at checkpoints by military police of residents is notoriously bad. The phone service — mobile phone service — is regularly disrupted.
And so people who oppose the militants are reluctant to even support the Army and the security forces because this is the way they are being treated. But also, the militants themselves brutally intimidate the residents against collaborating with the Army and police, and they come in — they’ll kidnap someone and dump their decapitated body on the streets to terrorize the residents. And so the people of Sinai are really stuck in this conflict, and they are the ones who are really suffering.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, before we go, I wanted to ask you about a recent high court decision — Egypt’s highest appeals court — upholding Alaa Abdel Fattah’s five-year prison sentence plus five years probation and a massive fine. The ruling final, can’t be appealed. Served three and a half years of his sentence already, so he’ll spend another year and a half in jail. Can you explain who he is, his significance, and what this means for other protesters? Also the situation for journalists right now in Egypt.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Alaa Abdel Fattah was a leading figure of the 2011 uprising, of the revolution. He was a leading thinker and a very respected figure. And I think that is why he was targeted so viciously by the government. He has been imprisoned under Mubarak. He was imprisoned under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He was arrested — issued an arrest warrant under Mohamed Morsi.
He has been in prison now for about 3.5 years of his five-year sentence. That was the final appeal. I was at court that day, and it was rejected, so he’s going to have to spend at least another year and a half in prison. He is also facing another trial, which the verdict is set for December 30, where he faces more years in prison. And even after he gets out, he has five years of probation. And what probation means here in Egypt for someone like Alaa would be spending 12 hours a day, every night, in a police station. He would have to go in at 6:00 p.m. every day, spend the night there, and he gets out at 6:00 a.m. So that’s another five years, of half of that being detained. So that’s very difficult.
With regards to the state of journalism, after the attacks on Friday, the official state information service issued some type of a statement to all of the foreign press. In it, it included a warning to international media outlets and to human rights organizations, basically saying that if we don’t toe the government line, that we are considered quote “partners” to terrorism.
Of course, the regime here has come under widespread criticism for its dismal human rights record. I mean, this is kind of the worst wave of oppression in Egypt’s modern history. They jail activists and journalists and human rights workers, and there’s multiple accounts of forced disappearance and torture. And Sisi has used this War on Terror and attacks like these as a pretext to clamp down on political freedoms.
And just in the past few weeks, Amy, there’s been another wave of arrests. A very prominent activist called Mahinour el-Masry was detained. A prominent secular blogger was detained. There was a wave of arrests almost unprecedented targeting the gay community. So all of this is happening, and yet the military uses or the government uses these attacks to threaten or warn human rights organizations and journalists.
And finally, we should just remember that while Friday’s mosque attack was the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt, in Egyptian history, it wasn’t the deadliest incident. The most violent incident came in August of 2013 when the Army and the police dispersed a pro-Morsi protest, killing between 800 and 1,000 people.
AMY GOODMAN: And just go on with that, for our last remaining minute. Explain what happened and how that informs Egypt today.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, that was a mass sit-in by supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, in two separate districts in Cairo. And the police, backed by the Army, came in and brutally opened fire. There has been multiple reports on this and multiple accounts. We don’t even know what the exact death toll is. But I was there that day, and it was for me the bloodiest incident I had witnessed. And I have been in something like five different wars now, and that one day was the bloodiest I had ever seen.
We’re talking about the killing of at least — I think the official is at least 700, but it’s probably between 800 and 1000 people, in a matter of hours, in one space. So this is one of the worst state mass killings since Tiananmen Square, or maybe the worst, since Tiananmen Square. And it is not something that the government or the country has really come to terms with, and it is something that kind of ended the revolution.
Many people took to the streets initially, did not agree with the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in. But once you can kill that many people in a day, that kind of was the first time that the government and the Army really had full control back, and the revolution was pretty much crushed.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!s correspondent in Cairo, Egypt. He’s a Nation Institute fellow. We’ll link to what you write, Sharif, at democracynow.org. When we come back, showdown at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington. Who will show up for work today as its head?
Then we speak with two not-so-traditional Democratic candidates who won their races in North Carolina and Virginia. Braxton Winston became famous in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his raised fist in front of a police line protesting police brutality. He will now take his seat on the Charlotte City Council. And we will speak with Lee Carter, a Democratic Socialist, former Marine, who unseated the Republican majority whip of Virginia’s legislature known as the Virginia House of Delegates. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.