CAIRO – The assailants arrived in five all-terrain vehicles: between 25 and 30 gunmen clad in military-style camouflage pants and black T-shirts and carrying an Islamic State flag.
They positioned themselves at the main gate of a Sufi mosque and in its 12 windows. Then, as the imam was about to deliver his Friday sermon, they set off explosives and sprayed hundreds of worshipers inside with bullets.
At least 305 people were killed – among them 27 children – and 128 were injured in what authorities are describing as Egypt’s worst attack by suspected Islamist extremists in modern times.
Investigators and survivors on Saturday offered new details about the carnage that unfolded at the Rawda mosque, in the dusty North Sinai town of Bir Abed.
As the gunfire and explosions rang out, worshipers dived to the floor and stampeded for the doors and windows, they said. Some even climbed into the pulpit, where Imam Mohammed Raziq had been speaking moments before.
“There were people on top of me bleeding, and I couldn’t feel anything,” Raziq said in an emotional interview with Egypt’s DMC TV channel.
After the initial round of seemingly random gunfire, the militants methodically checked their victims for signs of life.
“They were shooting anyone who seemed to be breathing,” Raziq said.
Those assailants who weren’t wearing masks sported thick beards and long hair, investigators said. They blocked access to the mosque by torching seven cars belonging to worshipers and also opened fire on ambulances as they raced to the scene.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed to respond with “extreme force” and “avenge our martyrs.”
Egyptian warplanes destroyed several vehicles used in the attack, killing their occupants, and also targeted suspected terrorist hide-outs containing weapons, ammunition, explosive materials and “administrative necessities,” the military said Saturday.
The government’s supporters cheered the military on.
“If officials wanted, we would go out with weapons and face these devils,” columnist Kareem Abdel Salam wrote in Egypt’s Al Youm Al Saba newspaper.
But the country’s security forces have been using such tactics for years in the Sinai Peninsula without appearing to dent the ability of a persistent Islamist insurgency to inflict devastating attacks.
“It’s really essential that there be a review of the strategy, given such a huge attack being able to take place,” said Timothy E. Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
He noted that a state of emergency that has been in effect in the region since 2014 has strangled the local economy and alienated the Bedouin tribes who live there.
“While many people agree that the counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism strategy needs to be more multifaceted and not just a military solution, fundamentally that’s very unlikely to happen so long as the country remains a military dictatorship that sees the military as the solution for every one of its problems,” Kaldas said.
Militants stepped up their attacks after al-Sisi came to power in a coup that toppled an elected Islamist president in 2013. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed since then, most of them in attacks carried out by a group that pledged loyalty to Islamic State in 2014.
As of late Saturday, no group had claimed responsibility for this latest attack. But a statement issued by the office of Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, said at least one of the assailants was brandishing a black flag inscribed with the declaration of the Muslim faith – “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet” – like those carried by Islamic State.
The group’s local affiliate, known as Sinai Province, has carried out deadly bombings on churches in the capital, Cairo, and other cities. It also is believed to have been responsible for the downing of a Russian passenger jet in 2015.
But the militants have not previously taken aim at a Muslim place of worship. At least two other Egyptian militants groups, Jund al-Islam and the Hasm Movement, denounced Friday’s attack.
The mosque that was targeted is frequented by Sufi Muslims, followers of a mystical form of Islam that is deemed to be heretical by Islamic State and other Sunni extremists. Many of those who worship there are members of the Sawarka tribe, who are generally viewed as supportive of the government and have refused to cooperate with the militants.
The scale of the bloodshed shocked Egyptians. Al-Sisi ordered that a mausoleum be built to honor the victims, and prayers were offered for them at mosques and churches across the nation Saturday.
After the funeral prayer at Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab mosque, one man shouted, “Long live Egypt.” The mosque is a focal point for both Shiite and Sufi Muslims, who chanted poems in praise of the prophet Muhammad and crowded a room said to house the tomb of one of his granddaughters.
It is practices such as these that have made the Sufi tradition a target of Islamic State, which considers the veneration of tombs to be blasphemous. The January edition of an Islamic State online magazine featured an interview with a Sinai commander who vowed to eradicate Sufis from the area.
But millions of Egyptians belong to Sufi orders. Next week, they will celebrate the prophet’s birthday – another practice discouraged by Islamic State. In preparation for the holiday, lights have been strung across city squares, and stalls have sprung up selling special sweets.
“We don’t know who is really doing this,” said one Cairo sweets vendor, who was too afraid to give his name. “I think Islamic State is actually people in the police themselves. Who else can do this?
“It’s terrible what happened yesterday. These people who killed Muslims in a mosque are not Muslims themselves.”
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