The death toll from the Rawda mosque attack in Al-Arish rose to 305, including 27 children, in addition to 128 injured, making the attack the deadliest in Egypt’s history, according to a statement issued by the General Prosecution on Saturday.
“Around 25 to 30 takfiri elements holding IS flags” appeared inside the mosque as its preacher was delivering the Friday sermon, and started shooting at prayer-attendees, the statement said according to information sent from the North Sinai directorate to the General Prosecution.
“The militants positioned in front of the door of the mosque and its twelve windows,” the statement said, meaning that gunmen surrounded the praying congregation from all sides of the mosque, to prevent their movement.
The statement continued that militants arrived at the mosque in five four-wheel-drive vehicles and burned seven cars belonging to mosque-goers.
Moreover, the statement also said that members of the General Prosecution have arrived to Al-Ismailia General and Al-Ismailia University hospitals, where the injured where transferred, to listen to their testimonies.
The testimonies stated that “the praying congregation heard sounds of shooting and bombing coming from outside the mosque,” followed by “the entrance of a number of persons inside the mosque…some of whom were masked and others were not,” adding that “one of them was holding a black flag with a print of the ‘Shahada’, an Islamic oath of creed, while all wore clothes resembling military uniform”. It further said that militants started randomly shooting at cars and the people praying inside the mosque, during the Friday sermon.
General Prosecutor Nabil Sadek ordered a prompt investigation into the attack to gather the required information to arrest the suspects and to take the necessary legal action. A team delegated from the General Prosecution arrived to the scene to survey the mosque.
Egypt’s Armed Forces launched air strikes, killing a number of militants in North Sinai, who were among the group involved in the attack on the mosque, according to a statement from a military spokesperson on Friday evening.
The attack against the mosque was an explosion due to an improvised explosive device (IED), according to local media reports, and coincided with the weekly Friday prayers. Local media reported that unknown militants opened fire at civilians after the explosion, as they attempted to escape the scene.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack thus far. However, both Hasm movement and Jund Al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliated group in North Sinai, issued a statement denying responsibility. The latter group appeared in 2013 in Egypt, when it claimed responsibility for an attack against a Military Intelligence building located in the city of Rafah in Sinai. The attack resulted in the death and injury of several members of the army.
The Hasm movement appeared in early 2016 when, in August, the group said it was behind the failed assassination attempt of former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. In October of the same year, militants driving a black private vehicle opened fire on army leader Adel Ragaai, assassinating him in front of his residence in Al-Obour City.
The reasons behind the attack are still unclear, as it is the first mosque attack in Egypt, although a number of Sufi sheikhs have previously been targetted in North Sinai. Up to this attack, terror attacks had been committed against security checkpoints, personnel, and churches.
The mosque, popular with Sufi worshippers, is located in Rawda village in Bir al-Abd, 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of Al-Arish. The village has 2,211 residents, according to Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 2016. Rawda village is not among the areas in North Sinai that have been under state of emergency since 2014.
In his first comments following the attack, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi offered condolences for the families of the victims, and asserted that the attack will not pass without punishment and decisiveness and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
“The pain felt by the Egyptian people in these difficult moments will not go in vain, but will drive them with hope and determination from such a pain to win this war, that is fought with honour and strength against black terrorism,” Al-Sisi added.
Al-Sisi reviewed reports about the incident and the developments of efforts to pursue the perpetrators of the attack, during an emergency meeting with the ministers of defence and interior and the head of intelligence.
The president declared a three-day state of mourning after the attack, and ordered the armed forces to build a monument in the village of Rawda commemorating the martyrs of the mosque attack. He also ordered EGP 200,000 and EGP 50,000 in compensation for the families of the dead and injured, respectively.
In a televised speech, the president vowed to respond to terrorism with brute force to maintain security and stability and to avenge the victims.
Foreign and Arab leaders have condemned the attack and offered condolences to Egypt, following the deadly attack. They further expressed support and solidarity for Egypt’s efforts to fight terrorism. Among the leaders were US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani also sent condolences to Al-Sisi. Earlier this year, Egypt cut its ties with Qatar, along with three Gulf countries, on the grounds that the country supports terrorism.