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Militants target Muslims in Egypt’s deadliest modern attack

Attackers unleashed mayhem and carnage on a crowded mosque in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Friday. At least 235 people were killed by militants who detonated explosives and shot worshippers as they tried to escape. Judy Woodruff learns more from Declan Walsh of The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A mosque in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula was the scene of mayhem and carnage today. At least 235 people were killed, and more than 100 injured, as militants attacked a crowded house of worship during Friday prayers in the town of Bir al-Abd.

    The attackers detonated explosives and shot worshipers as they tried to escape. Egypt's government declared three days of mourning across the nation.

    President Trump condemned the attack, and spoke this afternoon with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Earlier, Sisi declared that the attack will not go unpunished.

    For more, I spoke a short time ago with New York Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh.

    Declan Walsh, thank you for joining us.

    This seems to have been an unusually ruthless attack. They kept on shooting as the ambulances arrived?

  • Declan Walsh:

    Absolutely. That's right.

    There were — the team — the gunmen arrived in several vehicles. They split up into teams. Some of the gunmen went inside the mosque. They started shooting the worshipers immediately after a bomb had gone off. Other gunmen waited outside and shot people as they tried to flee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it was unusual that, in the past, they have been going typically after Christians. This time, it was at a mosque.

  • Declan Walsh:

    That's right. This is extremely unusual.

    This attack is extremely unusual, both by the size of the attack, the number of people who have been killed. This is the largest attack in modern Egyptian history. And it's also, as you say, by dint of the target.

    Over the last year, Islamic State have carried out a number of attacks on Christian, Coptic Christian churches here in Egypt, but they have never turned their guns on a Muslim mosque.

    Now, we do not yet have a claim of responsibility for this attack, but it's important to note that Islamic State, the local affiliate of Islamic State is the most significant, the most powerful group that is operating in that area, and they had previously made threats against Sufi Muslims.

    So these are Muslims who belong — who have a particular practice which extremists find to be heretical. And they have made threats against this group in Sinai in the past. They have killed about a year ago a senior Sufi cleric. They beheaded him, and they said that there would be more violence to come. And now they appear to have made good on that threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why isn't there more security in these places?

  • Declan Walsh:

    That's an excellent question.

    The Egyptian state has been battling the Islamic State in Sinai now for the last three or four years. It has poured huge resources into the fight in that part of the country. And we, as the foreign press and even most of the Egyptian press, have relatively little visibility on what goes on over there because it's a closed area to foreigners and indeed to many Egyptians.

    But we do know that there are ambushes against the Egyptian military and that the Egyptian military has responded with some force. So, this again is going to raise questions, particularly for President Sisi, as to why his military has been unable to push back the Islamic State, to stop them from carrying out attacks like this with such impunity.

    It's worth recalling that earlier on today, it seems that these groups, these gunmen who possibly numbered in the dozens were able to carry out this attack with no hindrance. They even waited at the site of the attack while the first-responders and the ambulances turned up, and they opened fire on some of the ambulances.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you point out, President El-Sisi said he's going to do something about it. He made a statement today, this will not go unpunished.

    But, as you have point out, there have been these other attacks. Do people believe that he will do something about this?

  • Declan Walsh:

    I think there's going to be a particular type of pressure on President Sisi because a mosque has been attacked this time.

    On the other hand, this is an attack that's taken place in Sinai. And often, the rest of Egypt is referred to here as mainland Egypt. That's the main cities like Cairo and Alexandria. That's where the attacks against Christians took place last year. And they certainly did ramp up the pressure on President Sisi, not just from the Christian community, but I think from Egyptians across the board, who were worried at the sight of these Islamic State attacks coming into their capital and into other major cities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Declan Walsh with The New York Times joining us from Cairo, thank you.

  • Declan Walsh:

    Thank you.

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