In Egypt, furious retaliation but failing strategy in Sinai

The New York Times reports: After militants massacred 305 people at a packed mosque on Friday in a stunning assault on a sacred place, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded as he knows best.

Mr. Sisi went on television vowing to “take revenge” and strike back with an “iron fist.” Moments later, Egyptian warplanes swooped over the vast deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, dropping bombs that pulverized vehicles used in the assault. Soldiers fanned out across the area.

But that furious retaliation, which follows years of battle in Sinai against a vicious Islamic State affiliate that downed a Russian passenger jet in 2015 and has regularly attacked Egyptian security forces there, revived the most troubling question about Mr. Sisi’s strategy in the desert peninsula: Why is it failing?

One of the most striking aspects of the carnage that unfolded on Friday, the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history, was how easy it was for the militants to carry it out. In a statement issued on Saturday, Egypt’s prosecutor general, Nabil Sadek, described the grisly scene in forensic detail.

Between 25 and 30 gunmen, traveling in five vehicles and carrying an Islamic State flag, surrounded a Sufi mosque on all sides in Bir al-Abed, a dusty town on a road that arcs across the sandy plain of North Sinai.

After an explosion, they positioned themselves outside the main entrance of the mosque and its 12 windows, spraying the worshipers with gunfire. Seven parked cars were set ablaze to prevent victims from escaping. Among the dead were 27 children.

For Sinai residents, the attack deepened an abiding sense of dread about life in a part of Egypt where many feel trapped between barbarous militants and a heartless military. At a hospital in nearby Ismailia, survivors recounted how they leapt through windows as militants raked them with gunfire, or of watching their friends and relatives die.

“If even mosques are being targeted, then where are we safe?” said Mohamed Abdel Salam, 22.

For Sinai experts, the assault sharpened scrutiny of Egypt’s counterinsurgency tactics against a dogged Islamist insurgency that has surged in strength since 2013, after Mr. Sisi came to power in a military takeover. [Continue reading…]

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