The biggest terrorist attack in history of Egypt: a blow to Sufism or tourism?

Who staged the next attack on the Sinai Peninsula? Expert in Eastern studies and journalist Anna Belikova’s opinion

The terrorist attack claimed over 200 lives in Egypt on 24 November. The explosion happened at the mosque of El Arish city (in the north of the Sinai Peninsula) during the Friday pray. In her interview with Realnoe Vremya's reporter, expert in Eastern studies and Arabist Anna Belikova told the Muslim temple where the tragedy took place belonged to the Sufi community. The expert also told what terrorist groups managed in the Sufi community and what a carrot they used to attract local Bedouins to their group.

''Sufis were praying at the mosque''

Ms Belikova, could you tell first what groups manage in the north of Sinai?

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis that pledged an oath of allegiance to ISIS (Editor's Note: the organisation is banned in Russia) in 2014 is one of the most famous and notorious groups. After that, the group members started to call themselves Wilayat Sinai, a branch of ISIS on the Sinai Peninsula. The organisation is topical for us because it was who claimed responsibility for the explosion of the Russian passenger plane that was flying above Sinai where over 200 people died (Editor's Note: the catastrophe of Airbus A321 on 31 October 2015). Given that, we should pay attention right to this aspect: tourism constantly becomes an object of attack, even if indirectly.

Theoretically, we understand the north of the Sinai Peninsula is a dangerous zone. As for the south, we know that it's quite a calm territory where the main tourist facilities are located, it is under a big control. When people make a decision to go on holiday, the word ''Sinai'' is considered as a whole. And I understand them because some fear arises.

I sincerely express my condolences to my beloved Egypt. Indeed, it is an awful tragedy. But it is a big blow to citizens of our country because Russia has many people who just missed holidays in Egypt, they got used to spending their holiday there. Now it will be another factor to postpone not only charter but also regular flights. Unfortunately, we still don't have regular flights to Egypt. After the fall of the Russian plane, we completely stopped air transport services with Egypt, and we would like it to renew soon very much. It seems it won't happen soon.

What could cause this terrorist attack?

It will be difficult to find out the real causes that served a motive for the terrorists. Undoubtedly, the basic reason for the terrorists is to frighten people, create black PR. Our colleagues from Arab channels told that Sufis were praying at the mosque – it's a traditional branch of Islam in our country but that's not accepted by radical Islamists. Traditional Sufi orders exist in Egypt. Sufi leaders who live there are respected people in the Islamic world. Radical Islamists are concerned that Taṣawwuf supporters respect graves of Sufi sheikhs, consider them holy. They are precisely an object of attack for terrorists. The mosque in El Arish city was supposed to be right Sufi. An awful execution of one of the sheikhs took place in the same city – old Sulaiman Abu Haraz, a 100-year-old very respected theologian (Editor's Note: November 2016).

The mosque in El Arish city was supposed to be right Sufi

It's a demonstrative attack. The terrorists could pursue several goals: on the one hand, it was traditional Sufi Islam, on the other hand, it's tourism (''fewer Kafirs will visit us''). But we don't know real motives. Apart from that the territory of the Sinai Peninsula historically had elements that are beyond Cairo's control, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (Editor's Note: the organisation is banned in Russia) who are persecuted joined them after 2013.

How could Ikhwans join ISIS? AsfarasI'mconcerned, they were their opponents.

Not the historical relationship but the formula ''my enemy's enemy is my friend'' is the point. Not to be in prison, many of the Muslim Brotherhood escaped from cities and joined different groups, that's to say, they became somehow legal in the world of rebels.

In addition, a new flow arose in Syria and Iraq. Due to the latest successes in the fight against terrorism on the territory of these countries, the rebels are driven out, so the flow of ethnic north-African ISIS fighters increased, and they are back home. One of the Algerian ministers has recently expressed his concern that his country was waiting for an inflow of ISIS supporters and they needed to do something with them.

''I don't think a specific country can be behind it''

Who of the international forces can benefit from the terrorist attack?

I don't see whom it would be directly beneficial to at the moment. Israel, which is close, is not interested. Israel even met Egypt halfway and agreed to increase the military contingent (according to Camp David Accords, the number of armed forces on the Sinai Peninsula is limited, Egypt can increase the number of militants on the territory of the peninsula only in agreement with Israel). Israel did it because neither Israel nor Egypt benefits from this escalation. I don't think that it also plays into Saudi Arabia's hands. Qatar that is in a tough situation is unlikely to have done it. Now it is in a confrontation with same Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It's an uneasy situation when the Persian Gulf neighbours accuse it of supporting terrorism. I don't think a specific country can be behind it. It's rather terrorist groups that missed blood, their main ''job'' is to kill innocent people. In terms of their cruelty, window dressing, they resemble those who are back from Iraq and Syria.

Do I understand correctly that Wilayat Sinai is posing the biggest threat to the peninsula?

In any case, it is the group that we know more about, that officially claims responsibility for the terrorist attacks that were performed not only on the Sinai Peninsula but in Egypt, in general, when they attacked militants, religious establishments, not only Muslim.

It's a demonstrative attack. The terrorists could pursue several goals: on the one hand, it was traditional Sufi Islam, on the other hand, it's tourism. But we don't know real motives

''Economic reasons behind religious and political mottoes''

Who lives in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula?

Mainly Bedouins who are historically different from the people of Egypt who live in central regions, in the capital live there. They always feel offended, what destructive elements use. They think that the official authorities took the most fertile lands, oases away. As they are simple, trusting people, preachers who know certain rhetoric approaches possess their mind and attract to their activity. The Bedouin tribes existing in the north of Sinai very often support destructive elements.

Historically, Sinai is the crossroads of commercial, economic, transport (and not always legal!) roads. Counterfeit flows became active in the period when Gaza needed supplies of food, construction materials and other goods because it was blocked by Israel. This is why all story with illegal, criminal elements developed here.

What does this part of the Sinai Peninsula live on?

The population there isn't very rich, especially in the north. Use of low literacy level is one of the factors to attract people to crime. Sinai can be potentially interesting by mountain ranges where natural minerals can be found. But I don't know how possible it will be in the short run, the situation is very unstable. The illegal economy plays no less role for the population of Sinai than the legal one. It is a buffer zone that became so after Camp David (Editor's Note: 1978). Now militarisation is going to grow, a super military state will be announced.

Does it mean there aren't any tourists there?

All tourism zones are located in the southern part. I need to add that the region is an important transport region for hydrocarbon piping. A pipeline to Jordan and Israel goes through Sinai. Right this pipeline is, in general, one of the main income points of Egypt. One of the complaints of the Bedouins is that they don't get any income and the country gets the money. This is why there were attempts to explode the pipeline. The political motto ''they explode the pipeline not to supply gas to inimical Israel'' is also used.

By Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: