x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Some thought the terrorists were after Egypt's Christians. Turns out, they are after everyone

The attack on a Sinai mosque was unprecedented and marks a new level of barbarism, writes HA Hellyer

Relatives of victims of the explosion wait outside Suez Canal University hospital. Reuters
Relatives of victims of the explosion wait outside Suez Canal University hospital. Reuters

On Friday, Egypt fell victim to the worst terrorist attack in its modern history. What happened was an act of brutality of the highest proportions by any standard. What happens next, however, depends on the lessons reaped by the region and the international community.

A few points ought to be made clear. The first is that extremist Islamists in Egypt have now shown that anyone can be their target. As BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark and other security analysts pointed out on Friday, we have seen militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula target state officials, security apparatus and Coptic Christians. On Friday, however, we saw them break any perceived pattern of their standard modus operandi when they decided to target a mosque and worshippers in this way.

While attacks on government and Christian entities are almost expected by cynical observers, attacks on mosques ironically symbolise a reality that we fail to fathom often enough. That is that the terrorists don't truly distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims in their campaign to cause instability.

Indeed, for too long, regional and international observers have erroneously analysed attacks on Egypt's Coptic community. Far too many in Washington, DC and other western capitals viewed the killing of Christian Egyptians as somehow distinct within their terrorist agenda (and more significant), playing into the interfaith strife the terrorists hoped to spread.

Still, the fact that many in the region have tried to downplay that many of the victims have, in fact, been Christian also fails to take into account why they were targeted.

Yes, Christian Egyptians are attacked for being Christian, but they are also attacked for being Egyptian. As such, both points must be taken into account.

The same type of analytical mistakes were made about Friday's massacre. In a month in which the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed is celebrated more than any other time of the year, a mosque was attacked as worshippers prayed. As they fled the carnage, more worshippers were attacked. And as people rushed to the mosque to help the injured, they, too, were attacked.

The message cannot be clearer: groups such as these will target anyone who they deem to be an obstacle to their objectives.

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Some will say that the mosque was targeted because it was affiliated with a Sufi order. Others will say there is a tribal element to the story since the villagers may have rejected co-operation of any kind with radical groups despite repeated threats.

All of this may be true. After all, Sufism and Sufis are rejected by extremists despite Sufism being an intrinsic part of Sunni Islam.

While all these points may be entirely relevant to understanding how and why this attack took place at the time it did, they are also a confirmation of a more fundamental issue, which is that there are no red lines for radical groups such as these.

Egypt is now in a state of mourning. In such a state, it will be difficult to think comprehensively about how to tackle a problem that requires a multi-faceted solution. It will be difficult to wisely assess how best to address all the different aspects of why Sinai is in the state it is today. It will be difficult to look at the deep socioeconomic issues that plague the peninsula in general and the importance of resolving these issues for the sake of a more stable peninsula - and a more stable Egypt. It will also be difficult to assess Egypt's security strategies and repercussions of security failures in recent years.

Still, such sobering evaluations are necessary and irreplaceable.

And yet, against the backdrop of this awful tragedy, there are two other points to take into account. The first is that radical extremists have long been suspected of trying to divide Egyptian society, looking for opportunities through wreaking havoc – which is partially why they targeted Egypt's Christian community in the first place.

If anything, the latest attack proves that terrorists targeted Muslims because they failed to evoke interfaith strife. Indeed, as history shows, they have thus far avoided targeting Muslims on such a large scale.

The second is that despite all of this, Egyptians, have, in fact, remained united against this scourge. All around the country, the Coptic Christian community sounded church bells yesterday in solidarity with their Muslim brethren.

This scourge of vile extremism will eventually fade away like the heresies of old. Egypt has suffered and overcome such acts of barbarism in the past and it will overcome them once again.