Islamic State raises stakes with Egypt mosque attack

ISMAILIA, Egypt, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The mosque was packed with hundreds of worshippers for Friday prayers in Egypt's North Sinai when gunmen in military-style uniforms and masks appeared in a doorway and at windows.

The ease with which they mounted an attack - killing more than 300 people in the worst bloodshed of its kind in Egypt's modern history - highlighted the threat militant groups pose in the most populous Arab country.

After four years of battling Islamic State in the Sinai, where the group has killed hundreds of soldiers and police, authorities still face an enemy with growing ambitions in Egypt, despite its defeats in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Carrying the black flag of Islamic State, the assailants arrived in off-road vehicles before opening fire on the cream-colored Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, leaving its carpets stained with blood, officials and witnesses said.

People scrambled to escape as gunmen opened fire at worshippers, including dozens of children. By the time the shooting stopped, many of the village's men were lifeless.

No group has claimed responsibility.

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At least 305 people killed in attack on mosque in Egypt
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At least 305 people killed in attack on mosque in Egypt
View of the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians gather around bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians walk past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians gather outside the Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometres west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, following a gun and bombing attack, on November 24, 2017. A bomb explosion ripped through the mosque before gunmen opened fire on the worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: People gather at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Security forces take security measures at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: Woundeds are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: A damaged car at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AL ARISH, EGYPT - NOVEMBER 24: People gather at the site of the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on November 24, 2017. The death toll from a bomb that went off outside a mosque in the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula following Friday prayers has climbed to a whopping 235, according to official sources. At least 109 others were injured in the blast, which occurred in the citys Al-Rawda neighborhood. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is seen during a meeting with government members on the attack in North Sinai, in Cairo, Egypt, November 24, 2017 in this handout picture courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY Empty shells and blood stains from victims are seen after an explosion at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An interior view of Al Rawdah mosque is seen after an explosion, in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY??A wheelchair is seen near blood stains of victims after an explosion at Al Rawdah mosque in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Soliman TEMPLATE OUT
Relatives of victims of the explosion at Al-Rawda mosque, sit outside Suez Canal University hospital in Ismailia, Egypt November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Relatives of the victims of the bomb and gun assault on the North Sinai Rawda mosque sit outside the Suez Canal University hospital in the eastern port city of Ismailia on November 25, 2017, where they were taken to receive treatment following the deadly attack the day before. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed on November 24 to respond forcefully after the attackers killed at least 235 worshippers in the packed mosque in restive North Sinai province, the country's deadliest attack in recent memory. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (Photo credit should read MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
The Eiffel Tower is pictured in Paris before switching off lights on November 24, 2017 in tribute to the victims of the deadly attack on a mosque in Egypt's Sinai. Armed attackers on November 24, 2017 killed at least 235 worshippers in a bomb and gun assault on a packed mosque in Egypt's restive North Sinai province, in the country's deadliest attack in recent memory. / AFP PHOTO / Thomas SAMSON (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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ATTACK RATTLES EGYPTIANS

Egyptians were stunned because the attack was directed at a mosque - a rarity in the country's history of Islamist insurgencies.

The possibility that ultra-hardline Islamists are shifting tactics and picking new targets is worrying for Egypt, where governments have struggled to contain groups far less brazen than Islamic State.

Egyptian leaders have adopted a zero-tolerance policy, with air strikes, raids on militant hideouts and long prison sentences.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has once again threatened to crush the militants.

"The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force in the coming period," he said after Friday's carnage.

Sisi has called for a comprehensive campaign to counter what he describes as the existential threat of radical jihadism, deploying moderate clerics to promote moderate Islam, for instance.

He is expected to run for a second term early next year. Even with a convincing win, he will face pressure to deliver on promises of stability, especially if attacks like that on Al Rawdah persist.

For Islamic State, the village was a target because of its ties to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that hardline Islamist groups consider heretical.

Some villagers recalled how these threats were made about a year ago in an Islamic State internet publication.

In a December 2016 issue of al-Nabaa, one of the group's religious leaders left little doubt that Sufis would be targeted. It mentioned Al Rawdah directly.

"Our primary focus lies in the war against polytheism and apostasy, and of those, Sufism, sorcery and divination," he said. More threats were made in early 2017.

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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
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A glimpse into the land ISIS has lost
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Iraqi soldiers inspect a vehicle used for suicide car bombings, made by Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A captured Islamic State tank and shells are seen at the Iraqi army base in Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, Iraq November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Iraqi security forces takes a selfie at a building that was used by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi officer displays Russian passports, which he says belong to Islamic State fighters, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A man who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul shows his marriage certificate issued by the Islamic State militants at temporary court at Khazer camp in Iraq, January 18, 2017. Picture taken January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
U.S. Special Operations Forces members inspect a drone used by Islamic State militants to drop explosives on Iraqi forces, in Mosul, Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A member of Iraqi security forces inspects a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Ali, south of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A mass grave for Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja, Iraq, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
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SUFIS CONDEMNED FOR BELIEFS

In March, Islamic State's branch in the Sinai posted a video of its religious police forcing a group of Sufis to renounce their beliefs under threat of death.

It showed what it said were militants beheading two elderly Sufi men in the desert after they were found guilty of witchcraft and sorcery.

Egypt has about 15 million Sufis, and their shrines and saints appear in villages across the country.

Ultra-conservative Salafists abhor Sufi practices and some have in the past threatened to smash their symbols with hammers and iron bars.

Five police and army sources said there was no recent specific threat against Sufis in Al Rawdah.

Friday's attack began in the early afternoon.

The mosque's imam said he had just stepped onto the podium for his sermon when gunfire erupted and worshippers struggled to escape.

"I found people piled on top of each other and they kept firing at anyone," imam Mohamed Abdel Fattah told Reuters from his hospital bed in Sharqiya city. "They fired at anyone who breathed."

Ramadan Salama, 26, said all he remembers before ending up in hospital was gunmen entering the mosque during the sermon and spraying worshippers with gunfire.

As Egyptian security forces try to reassure an anxious public, they face yet another dangerous enemy.

A new group with military training is already posing a more complex threat. In October it mounted a sophisticated attack, not far from Cairo.

The little-known Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for the attack on police in the Western desert, far from northern Sinai. Security sources said dozens of police officers and conscripts were killed. The government said 16 police and conscripts died.

Security sources said the heavy weapons and tactics employed indicated ties to Islamic State or more likely an al Qaeda brigade led by Hesham al-Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special forces officer turned jihadist.

For now, security and intelligence officials will continue to hunt Ashmawy, described as the country's most wanted man.

Egypt's prosecutor's office, citing its investigation and interviews with wounded survivors, says gunmen carried an Islamic State flag as they stormed the Al Rawdah mosque.

Authorities say 305 people, including 27 children, died as gunmen even attacked ambulances arriving on the scene. Another 128 were wounded.

"They entered the mosque from outside, almost 10 to 20 people with weapons, and they destroyed everything," said resident Magdy Rezk from hospital.

It was a huge toll for a tiny village. Tribal leader Ibrahim el-Menaie, told Reuters via social media that it has a population of only 800.

"The whole village is black with mourning," said resident Haj Ahmed Swailam. (Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Eric Knecht; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)

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