This was the deadliest attack Egypt has experienced in its recent history. The toll is heavy: 305 dead including 27 children, and 128 wounded, according to the Egyptian authorities.
On this Friday, 24 November, 2017, while the faithful were praying in the al-Rawdal Mosque of Bir Al-Abd, a village of 2500 inhabitants located in North Sinai, about forty masked men dressed in military uniforms circled the scene with four all-terrain vehicles. After detonating a bomb inside the place of worship, they shot with their automatic weapons at the people inside the mosque; but also outside, on all those who tried to escape. Then, the attackers burned vehicles to block the roads, and fled before the arrival of the army. The assault only lasted 20 minutes. According to a testimony on the Mada Masr website, the majority of people attending this mosque came from the localities of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.
The modus operandi of the commando, meticulously planned, leaves many questions unanswered. And this, especially since the attack has not been claimed to date. The Egyptian authorities were eager to designate a culprit: "the Islamic State in the province of Sinai". According to the official vulgate, this group is believed to be an offshoot of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) who allegedly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in August 2013, then to the Islamic State from 2014. And this transformation is quite difficult to verify, since the only source of information are the Egyptian Mukhabarat (intelligence services).
The Egyptians, however, are not fooled. On social networks they accuse the Egyptian Republican Guard, even though the assailants conspicuously brandished an Islamic State flag during their timed assault, as if to put emphasis on a signature and thus cover any other tracks. This is reminiscent of the dreaded "al-Katiba al-Khadra" (The Green Battalion) that had raged in Algeria, perpetrating, among other things, the massacres of August and September 1997 in Bentalha, Raïs and Béni-Messous whose survivors, terrified, had joined the suburbs of Algiers. After the stupor, the testimonies of soldiers who fled Algeria finally revealed that this terrorist group was a manufacture of the Algerian DRS (Department of Intelligence and Security) in order to, according to the French military doctrine of counter-insurgency war, "cut the fish off from the water" that is, to isolate the insurgent groups of the Salvation Islamic Army (the armed wing of the FIS party, dissolved after the military coup of January 1992) from the rest of the population.
Be that as it may, the only certainty is that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis appeared in Sinai just after the "January 25, 2011 Revolution". Its first military feats were the simultaneous attack on the Egyptian-Israeli border crossing Kerem Shalom, near the southern tip of Gaza, as well as the sabotage of gas pipelines fuelling Israel and Jordan. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has since limited itself to claiming deadly raids targeting police or Egyptian army roadblocks, as well as convoys of conscripts. Dozens of police and soldiers were killed in ambushes and car bomb attacks. Since the coup d'état of Marshal al-Sisi, other armed groups have emerged in North Sinai, and particularly in a triangle bounded by the cities of El-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. A desert area, with a reduced perimeter, where the population, in perpetual insurrection against the central power, is strongly repressed since they are considered an accomplice of the "jihadists", supporters of the ex-president Morsi, who fled the arrests. The latter are conducting a veritable "guerrilla war" against the army, deployed in full force in the region. A state of emergency has been declared throughout North Sinai since October 2014, and journalists are barred. Let us clarify that the locality of Bir Al-Abd, where the carnage of the mosque took place, is only 40 kilometres from El-Arish, chief town of the province of North-Sinai where there is a large military barracks.
The Egyptian Third Field Army Infantry Division is permanently stationed in Sinai, particularly in the North and along the border with Gaza and Israel. The Egyptian army, funded by the US for 3 billion dollars a year, is considered one of the best trained in the world. Every two years since 1981, the Pentagon has organised a large exercise in Egypt, called Bright Star, with the participation of the US military and the Egyptian army, including the Egyptian special forces. The most recent was in September 2017. For the United States, Egypt is indeed highly strategic and is therefore attached to CentCom (Central Command) whose area of responsibility covers the Middle East with its oil. One of Egypt's missions is to block convoys of weapons to Gaza.
Is this a mere coincidence? The attack came as the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was to reopen for three days following a reconciliation agreement reached in Cairo last month between Fatah and Hamas under the aegis of the Egyptian intelligence services. Palestinian rivals have agreed, among other things, to shift responsibility for the Rafah Border Crossing to a unity government. Suffice to say that the Israeli neighbour certainly does not look kindly on what could prove to be the first step in the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. In 2014, they had notably demanded that Egypt develop a buffer zone on its border. This resulted in destruction of the Rafah neighbourhoods closest to Israel by bulldozers, and the brutal displacement of their inhabitants by the Egyptian army, while an electronic fence was erected along the border. More recently, populations have been displaced from El-Arish in the name of the fight against terrorism. That's more than enough to push young people who are angry, or on the run, into the welcoming arms of armed groups!
Therefore, the massacre of Bir Al-Abd is a serious snub for Marshal Al-Sisi who claims to be the only guarantor of security in the region. "Our reaction will be brutal!" he hammered home, clearly cut to the quick, at an ad hoc meeting held straight after the attack was announced. And as if to join the actions to the president's words, drones destroyed, according to an anonymous military source relayed by the channel Sky News Arabic, "vehicles carrying terrorists" in a desert area named Al-Risha. This information has never been officially confirmed!
The fact is that now, under the cover of the fight against terrorism, we must not rule out an increase in repression in the region, or even other unclaimed massacres, including elsewhere in Egypt. The Bedouin of Sinai are indeed regularly designated by the government media as "traitors to the nation" and their children as "accomplices of terrorists". It's a way to deflect public anger, after every attack against the army resulting in deaths among young conscripts sent to Sinai without any experience.