So this is what failure looks like? A horrendous atrocity that kills more than 300 people at prayer?
Yes. It shows what happens when an Islamist terror group with outsized political goals faces defeat on the battlefield. Despite the horrible outcome, it shows weakness, and it could be the first page of their last chapter. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.
Friday’s attack on a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai is the worst terrorist strike to hit the country in modern times. It also marks the first time that ISIS-linked militants there have attacked a major mosque. Dozens of terrorists were involved, setting off a bomb, opening fire on worshipers trying to escape, and even targeting ambulances.
It’s important to note here that the militants are Sunni Muslims and so were the victims, with a critical difference:
The mosque in the Sinai serves Sufi Muslims, from a branch of Islam that emphasizes mystical rites and is arguably the most peaceful sect in all of Islam. Among tourists, Sufis are probably best known for their colorful dancing.
But it’s far from a radical splinter group or a recent development. Sufism dates back to the eighth century, and it represents an internal interpretation of Islam, not a rival sect. Even so, radical Sunni Islamists consider Sufis as heretics, and therefore, targets for death.
ISIS and other violent extremists have targeted Sufis and their mosques in other places in recent years, notably Pakistan and Mali. In the Sinai, militants have destroyed several Sufi shrines.
Yet the Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque, considered the seat of Sunni Islamic learning and ruling, is himself a hereditary Sufi sheikh. Ahmed el-Tayeb can be considered the most influential Sunni Muslim scholar in the world–but even that status doesn’t protect Sufi followers from Islamist militants.
For two decades, Islamists in Sinai have been battling the Cairo government. In recent years they have self-identified as affiliated with ISIS. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013, has been hunting them down relentlessly. They have been responding with the usual guerrilla tactics–hit-and-run gunfire, bombs, ambushes. More than 1,000 militants have been killed, along with hundreds of Egyptian police and soldiers.
El-Sisi started his reign with a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activists that included street battles in Cairo that killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters. Thousands of others, including the entire leadership, are in Egyptian prisons. El-Sisi has demonstrated his resolve to crush the Islamists, and despite a high cost, he’s making progress.
So it’s clearly a dead-end prospect for the Islamists. They can’t defeat the Egyptian military. They can’t impose an extremist Islamist government on Egypt. Another bit of perspective–they continued fighting even when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt for a year before el-Sisi ousted them. The Brotherhood isn’t radical enough for them.
So what does a frustrated religious and political terror group do when it’s stymied on the battlefield? It turns to targeting civilians. There are no failures in such attacks–only their side is armed. But it shows the level of their desperation–and it could be the beginning of their end.
The horrific attack on the Sufi mosque in the Sinai has evoked condemnation from almost all parts of the Islamic world. Even Hezbollah and Hamas, themselves violent, extremist Muslim groups with political aspirations, condemned the atrocity. ISIS, so quick to claim responsibility for attacks large and small around the world, even those it could not conceivably have had a role in, has been silent about this one. In context, that amounts to a condemnation.
That shows that the militants have finally overplayed their hand, at least in Egypt. That could be a game-changer.
It is clear from Western-aided military campaigns against ISIS in Syria and especially Iraq that the Islamist militants cannot be defeated by military means alone. Once vanquished on the battlefield, ISIS heads for the hills, literally and figuratively, planning guerrilla attacks against armed forces and terror attacks against civilians, often in the West. They represent an ideology that cannot be bombed into oblivion.
So there’s only one way to defeat ISIS and its ilk–the people must rise up and expel them. The anger in the Muslim world against the ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Egypt’s Sinai could well set off a movement there to expose and eliminate the militants. And Sinai could be the first step in a grass-roots campaign across the Muslim world to root them out.
This won’t take place overnight. If it starts at all, it will be a long, painful process. There will be more terror attacks, more deaths, more injuries. But one day analysts might look back at the massacre at the Sufi mosque in Sinai as the beginning of the end of ISIS influence.
That’s how an attack that kills more than 300 people becomes a sign of weakness.