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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

The worst terrorist atrocity in Egypt's modern history calls for a tough response

Grieving Egyptians can take heart from the president's vow to return security and stability to the region

The attack on the Rawda mosque, where members of the Sufi sect were known to congregate, bears all the hallmarks of ISIL.   EPA
The attack on the Rawda mosque, where members of the Sufi sect were known to congregate, bears all the hallmarks of ISIL. EPA

The scene was a familiar one, replicated in hundreds of thousands of mosques across the Middle East – a community gathering peacefully for Friday prayers, meeting and greeting one another as they bowed in devotion. Then attackers burst into the Rawda mosque in the Egyptian town of Bir Al Abd to throw grenades in the prayer hall and spray the congregation with gunfire. The house of worship was instantly turned into a scene of carnage, but the horror did not end there. As the terrified masses tried to flee the Sufi mosque, up to 30 masked gunmen lay in wait outside, ready to pick them off. The shocking death toll of 305, with another 128 injured, wiped out a tenth of Rawda's population and has left an entire country reeling.

This was the worst terrorist atrocity in the modern history of Egypt. Egyptians are shocked and angry. They have witnessed gut-wrenching spectacles of bloodshed in the past – many of them directed at the country’s Coptic Christian minority – but none as gruesome or as callously orchestrated to cause maximum harm as the one on Friday.

The attack, which bears all the hallmarks of ISIL and is being linked to the affiliated Sinai Province, shows no one is safe from the ruthless group, which has been all but been driven from Iraq and Syria but whose fighters keep forming pockets of insurgency and reappearing across the region, targeting people of all faiths. The Sinai Peninsula has long been listed by ISIL as a potential target because of the number of Sufis living there.

ISIL, committed to imposing its own warped interpretation of Islam, has in the past expressed its hatred for Sufism and its practices. Egypt’s Sinai region, where the Rawda mosque is based, has encountered its hate-filled doctrine before; just a year ago, the organisation beheaded a centenarian Sufi cleric in public. In November last year, ISIL claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, in which more 50 people were killed. The terrorist group must be driven out of its remote hiding places, once and for all.

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ISIL is on the brink of physical defeat, but the fight is far from over

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Since those attacks, the group has suffered defeat after defeat, before being driven out in recent months from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. But, as these pages have warned in the past, defeating ISIL is not the same thing as destroying its hideous ideology. Its fighters can simply move on to other terrorist outfits, or reconstitute themselves as guerrilla forces. Either way, the challenge before the world remains formidable.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was swift to act by launching military airstrikes on "terrorist outposts" within hours of the attack. He has vowed to deploy “brute force” if necessary to deal with insurgents in the Sinai region who, animated by ISIL’s nihilistic ideology, have posed a threat to Egypt’s security for years. “The army and police will avenge our martyrs and return security and stability with force in the coming short period,” the president announced shortly after an emergency meeting with his top security team on Friday. It will take a sustained campaign to restore law and order to the Sinai Peninsula, but the culprits behind Friday's cold-blooded attack deserve nothing less than the full might of Egypt's justice system.

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