Cairo: Egypt raised its security alert to the highest level on Saturday as it emerged that the Islamic State may have been behind a mosque attack in the restive north Sinai in which more than 300 people died, the most lethal single assault in the country's recent history.
Hours after the midday attack on Friday, the military said it launched overnight airstrikes that destroyed vehicles believed to have been used in the gun and bomb attack on the mosque west of the city of Al-Arish.
There has been no claim of responsibility, but analysts said it bore the hallmark of an Islamic State affiliate that operates in the area and highlighted the challenges President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi faces restoring security and reviving economic growth after years of upheaval since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Initial investigations showed the attackers hoisted the Islamic State flag during the attack, which was carried out by 25 to 30 militants, the public prosecutor's office said in a statement.
The militants, who stormed the mosque frequented by Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam, blocked the door and windows of the building and opened fire on worshippers with automatic weapons, according to the statement. They arrived in five sport-utility vehicles, it said.
At least 27 children were among the dead, and more than 100 other people were wounded, authorities said. The incident, coming as Egypt is making significant progress in reviving an economy battered in the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, laid bare the challenges confronting Sissi and his government in combating a resilient militancy that has defied efforts to stamp it out.
The scale of the assault and the choice of target - people gathered for Friday prayers at a mosque frequented by Sufi Muslims - stunned the nation, drew international condemnation and triggered air raids by Egypt's military. Attacks on mosques are rare in Egypt, but Sufis are considered heretics by jihadist movements such as Islamic State.
Islamic State-Sinai Province has killed hundreds of police and soldiers in recent years. Over the past 12 months, it has turned its guns increasingly on civilians, with attacks on churches packed for Christmas and Easter prayers, and now on Muslim worshippers.
"This is a shift in the tactics of the terrorists," said Hossam El-Rifai, a member of Parliament for northern Sinai. "An attack on civilians at Friday prayers is not something we have been used to seeing."
The military was in place on the Peninsula and would not rest until all those involved in Friday's attack had been eliminated, the state-run newspaper al-Ahram quoted Egyptian security sources as saying.
Several suspects had already been killed, the paper reported.
Late on Friday, Sissi had vowed a "harsh" response to the massacre, which investigating prosecutors said left 109 injured.
The attack on the mosque began shortly after noon prayers, when militants detonated explosive devices around al-Rawdah mosque in the town of the same name, around 40km west of the city of al-Arish, a security source and witnesses told DPA by phone.
Militants, believed to be from Islamic State, then opened fire on the worshippers fleeing from the blasts.
"They were shooting at people as they left the mosque," a local resident whose relatives were at the scene said. "They were shooting at the ambulances too."
"Those who were killed today are martyrs with Allah ... they were praying before taking their last breath," Abdel Halim al-Azmi, secretary-general of the Worldwide Federation of Sufi Orders - a Cairo based international body representing million of Sufis internationally - told Fairfax Media.
Sufis, comprising several religious orders, number about 15 million in Egypt. They follow a more syncretic form of Islam that reveres saints with ornate shrines and musical celebrations. Overall, Sufis have been receptive to Sissi's presidency viewing him as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism.
The attack, according to Azmi, was a clear targeting of the minority close to the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth early next month.
"Last year around the same time, Daesh [Islamic State] killed a prominent Sufi sheikh in Sinai to coincide with the Moulid al-Nabawi [Prophet's birth] and now we see this heartbreaking attack that is intended to break Sufism," he explained.
Egypt has been battling the growing insurgency since 2013 in the northern part of Sinai, a region that has become awash in smuggled weapons and lawlessness. In January this year, Islamic State vowed in its propaganda magazine Rumyah to exterminate Sufis in the Sinai. It singled out the mosque in al-Rawdah where the attack happened as a potential target.
"We have to put this attack in a wider context ... this is part of an extremist trend that has targeted Sufi orders globally," Azmi noted. "These terrorists see us Sufis as heretics because in the end we love the Prophet."
IS has gained strength as a security vacuum has allowed it to focus attacks on military and police targets and claim dozens of forces almost weekly.
Sissi, a former armed forces commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militants, convened an emergency security meeting soon after the attack, state television said.
Private newspaper al-Masry al-Youm reported that more than 20 masked gunmen were involved in the attack and that they used automatic rifles.
A three-day period of mourning has been declared for the victims.
with DPA, Bloomberg