"So composed were the militants that they methodically checked their victims for any sign of life after the initial round of blazing gunfire. Those still moving or breathing received a bullet to the head or the chest, the witnesses said. When the ambulances arrived they shot at them, repelling them as [paramedics] got back into their vehicles and fled."(The Associated Press)
The Egyptian government and its military have been tight-lipped about details of the attack at Al Rawdah mosque in Northern Sinai on November 24, so reporters have had to rely greatly on eyewitnesses among the survivors. Inevitably, as in any 'fog of war' situation, this has meant conflicting accounts about certain aspects of the attack; e.g., the number of attackers and number and type of vehicles they arrived in, whether a suicide bomber was used, and the number and type of explosions in/around the mosque. (One survivor thought at first he was hearing explosions then realized it was barrages of machine gun fire).
However, eyewitnesses who were in the position to observe movements of the attackers were in agreement about the attackers' thoroughness:
Ahmed Ghanem al-Jarirat, a resident of the village, said that the attack went on for 25 minutes during which the perpetrators pursued people trying to flee while making sure the victims were in fact dead.
“The gunmen followed most of those who fled the mosque in the empty area surrounding it and shot each and every one of those who fell to the ground with a bullet in the head who they doubted was dead. This took 25 minutes,” he said.
“After the terrorists had killed the worshipers, they went to the cars belonging to them in front of the mosque and set them on fire, after pouring gasoline on them. We called the ambulance which arrived within minutes after the gunmen had left the mosque,” he went on to say.
He pointed out that the attackers opened fire on the arriving ambulance while fleeing when the army approached.
“The gunmen were hiding and fired at it directly. We saw blood coming from the paramedics. As soon as the gunmen felt the army approaching, they fled to the south,” Jarirat said.That account was from a November 26 report filed by top-drawer Arabic newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm (translated into English by 'sister' publication Egypt Independent; staff reporters circumvented government-erected barricades to get into the village where the attack occurred and interviewed people there who'd survived the attack.)
In short, at least two credible news sources spoke with eyewitnesses whose description of the attackers' thoroughness dovetailed.
Given that the initial 'scattershot' phase of the attack had struck at least 400 in the mosque area and that there were only between 25-40 attackers (with most accounts putting the number between 25-30), the effort to examine and kill everyone among the victims would have taken considerable time -- 25 minutes by Jarirat's reckoning.
This meant the attackers took a big risk that security forces would arrive before they decamped, especially because they knew a military base was not far from the village.
And if a suicide bomber wasn't used in the attack (most accounts make no mention of such), then the attackers definitely didn't want to lose any operatives during the assault -- and they would have known their best bet in this would have been to finish the attack as quickly as possible.
I don't know whether fighter jets and helicopters were at the nearby military base but even with one helicopter there, the attackers would have known their escape route could be quickly tracked from the air. Yet they took the time to ensure those wounded/felled in the gunfire were actually dead. This is extraordinary; indeed it's unprecedented in all accounts of terrorist attacks, worldwide, I can recall. And certainly it's unprecedented for all 'jihadi' style terrorist attacks, of the kind made famous by al Qaeda and its offshoots including Islamic State.
So there you have it: a sophisticated, flawlessly executed attack on a mosque that was guaranteed to be packed to capacity on that particular day (the Friday closest to the start of 2017 birthday celebrations for the Prophet Muhammad), with most of the women out the way at the time of the attack, which launched at the start of the sermon.
One account has it that the mosque can hold 500 people, another that its capacity is 400. So when we consider that 311 attendees were killed, with about 216 wounded, the attackers shot just about everyone present in the mosque and its close environs (a plaza just outside the mosque). And while 27 (male) children were among the dead I will assume they, along with any adult females who were killed, were collateral damage.
The attackers weren't interested in a random selection of victims; they were intent on shooting every adult male in the mosque and, within the time allotted for the attack, making sure wounded adult males were dead. In this, the attackers even went so far as to attempt to ward off an ambulance(s) that arrived at the mosque.
So I'd say that "composed," as the AP writer put it, hardly describes the attackers' mein. Yes they were composed; surely they were chosen because they were very experienced. But if their entire mission was to execute all adult males in the mosque, they took the time to do this methodically because that's what they were ordered to do.
Given all the above, and despite opinions that Sufism was the attackers' target, I think that religious beliefs were the least of the target.
If the attackers had simply wanted to terrorize attendees at that particular Sufi mosque (which was open to all Muslim sects), they needn't have taken so much time and effort to do it, especially because they clearly didn't want a shoot-out with security forces.
In addition Islamic State would have had less incentive to target that particular mosque for Sufi practices because the mosque, which is maintained by the Jarirya Order, one of the largest Sufi orders in North Sinai, had already complied with key IS demands:
Jarirya has a zawiyah (a small mosque) next to Rawdah mosque, but neither the mosque nor the zawiyah have any shrines, for Jarirya followers decided to abandon their most significant ritual in order to avoid attacks from the ABM [a local branch of Islamic State]. They demolished all their shrines and rebuilt them without domes.[Egypt Today]So what was the motive for such targeted killings, aside from killing Sufi males?
From a report filed November 26 by Hamza Hendawi for The Associated Press, and from several other credible news reports, the local chapter of Islamic State had repeatedly warned persons associated with the Al Rawdah mosque to stop collaborating with Egyptian security forces (and of course to stop practicing Sufism).
And Debkafile's first report on the Al-Rawdah massacre, posted within a few hours of the attack, stated that Al Rawdah mosque "... is frequented by Egyptian security officers posted in the region and their families."
I place in the fog of war category the report's mention that the attack included a suicide bombing, but I consider the detail about the Egyptian security forces to be credible background information that Debkafile could have readily obtained. The site is a conduit for views of the hawkish faction in the Israeli government and its military, and so their reporters have good sources in the Israeli Defense Force. My understanding, from reports I've come across over the years, is that the IDF and Egyptian military share intelligence on the activities of jihadi groups in the Sinai Peninsula.(1)
When I place the reports from The Associated Press et al. and Debkafile together, I come up with collaborators as the prime target, with Egyptian military personnel as the bonus -- or the other way around.
And so all things considered, I wouldn't describe the massacre at Al Rawdah mosque as a terrorist incident; it was a mass execution by firing squad.
Now as to exactly which group carried out the execution, and whether it was done at the behest of some other group or faction -- the list of suspects would be long in both cases. The answer as to whether it was a contract killing might depend on just how many Egyptian military personnel were gunned down, a number which I doubt the Egyptian government is willing to share with the public.
But no matter how you look at it, the attackers killed just about every collaborator in the village of Al-Rawda.
1) Given that everyone who observes terrorist activity in the Middle East knows about Debkafile, I find it odd that no one else reporting to the public about the attack has mentioned the significant detail found in the Debkafile report. And I've not come across mention anywhere else that Al Rawdah was frequented by Egyptian security personnel -- although I could understand the Egyptian government not wanting this discussed in press reports.