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Dozens Killed In Attack On Egyptian Mosque


At least 235 people have been killed in an attack on a mosque in Egypt's northern Sinai region. The Egyptian government has declared three days of mourning. NPR's Jane Arraf covers Egypt, and she joins us now. Hi, Jane.


KING: Jane, what do we know about the target of today's attack?

ARRAF: Well, it's apparently a Sufi mosque. And it was about 25 miles out of the provincial capital of El Arish and in the North Sinai province. Now, the Sufi branch of Islam - Sufis have been a frequent target of an ISIS affiliate that operates in the area. And that does appear to have been the target. The mosque was full of worshippers who were holding Friday prayers.

It's the traditional day where people congregate at the mosque. And the attackers apparently not only set off the explosives, they opened fire on the worshippers, which explains part of that extremely high death toll that we're seeing.

KING: Jane, these sorts of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, unfortunately, have not been all that rare recently, have they?

ARRAF: They haven't. The Egyptian government has been fighting an ongoing battle there for the past six years. And it's really picked up steam. So it's an area that did have a security vacuum after the government was toppled six years ago. And since then, the government has been fighting hard with the army in a crackdown there to try to quell this. But it hasn't really had a lot of access.

The main targets there have been the police and security forces. And there've been a lot of attacks. But the government has also responded with a very heavy-handed campaign so that also is part of the problem.

KING: Why hasn't the crackdown been successful?

ARRAF: Essentially, it's an area that is basically out of government control to a large extent. The government has been trying to cut it off from the rest of the country. It's very difficult to get in and out of the North Sinai. There have been measures like curfews declared. It's even hard to report on the North Sinai. Journalists can't go there and the journalists who are from there are very restricted as to what they can report.

But part of the reason that the government is seen to be fighting an uphill battle against this offshoot of ISIS is the way that it has conducted the campaign. It has cut off entire areas. There are claims - denied by the government - but persistent claims of extra judicial killings. And all of this is overlaid as well by tribal factors and tribal conflicts that are going on.

KING: Do we know who's responsible for today's attack, Jane?

ARRAF: No one has taken responsibility yet but given the target and given the fact that these were Sunnis, it's quite likely - it does have the hallmarks of an attack by the ISIS affiliate in the North Sinai. They've also attacked, as well as soldiers and police, they've attacked Christians and they've also expanded their campaign, their attacks outside of that rather remote province. They have recently attacked, for instance, Christian pilgrims. They've attacked a Palm Sunday service earlier this year. So the fear is, of course, that this is growing.

KING: Jane, in the last couple seconds we have left, Egypt's economy depends very heavily on tourism. Does an attack like today's hit the tourism industry at all?

ARRAF: It does, I suppose, if tourists don't know where the North Sinai is. It is not near an area anyone would ever venture. But certainly, this is not good for Egypt's image as a tourist destination.

KING: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.