Egypt was last night reeling from the bloodiest terror attack in its history after suspected Isil fighters slaughtered at least 235 people during prayers by detonating explosives inside a Sinai mosque and then killing the worshippers in a hail of gunfire.
The terrorists struck a mosque in the remote town of Bir al-Abed in northern Sinai where hundreds of people had gathered for traditional Islamic prayers on Friday afternoon.
The attack began with a powerful explosion at the al-Rawdah mosque and gunmen leapt out of four off-road vehicles to kill people as they fled. Security officials and witnesses said the attackers used their vehicles to cut off escape routes and opened fire on ambulances as they reached the scene. More than 100 were wounded.
The gunmen appear to have escaped from the scene after the massacre before Egyptian security forces could arrive.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but suspicion fell on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (Isil) affiliate in the Sinai desert, which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Egyptian military and the country’s Christian minority.
The worshippers at the al-Rawdah were mainly Sufis, who adhere to a mystic form of Islam. Isil considers Sufis to be heretics and has threatened them in the past.
The town of Bir al-Abed is home to around 2,500 people, all members of the Sawarka tribe. In conservative rural areas of Egypt it is usually only men who attend Friday prayers. With an attack so large it is believed that a significant portion of all the men in the village were either killed or wounded on Friday.
Abdel Qader Mubarak, a man originally from the village, said his entire family had been killed in the slaughter. "I can't talk, all my family are gone," he told The Telegraph.
The massacre is the worst terrorist attack on civilians in modern Egyptian history, and its death toll outstripped the 224 deaths caused when suspected Isil militants blew up a Russian airliner shortly after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s president, promised to respond with “brutal force” against the attackers.
“We will remain steadfast and will fight back with an iron fist. This attack will only add to our persistence on overcoming the tragedy and we will win the battle against the forces of evil,” Mr Sisi said.
"The army and police will avenge our martyrs and return security and stability with force in the coming short period.”
Hours after the attack, Egypt's military launched air strikes on targets in mountainous areas around Bir al-Abed, security sources and witnesses said.
Despite Mr Sisi’s pledge, the security forces have struggled to contain the jihadist insurgency in Sinai and suffered heavy casualties.
Donald Trump led a chorus of international condemnation of the attack. “Horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers in Egypt,” he said on Twitter. “The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!”
Appearing to refer to his travel ban policy and plan for a wall along the border with Mexico, he later added: "Will be calling the President of Egypt in a short while to discuss the tragic terrorist attack, with so much loss of life. We have to get TOUGHER AND SMARTER than ever before, and we will. Need the WALL, need the BAN! God bless the people of Egypt."
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, called the slaughter “a barbaric act”.
Jihadist groups have regularly attacked Christian churches in Egypt as part of an effort to deepen sectarian divides in the country. But attacks against mosques have been rare.
Mobile phone footage purportedly taken from inside the mosque in the moments before the attack shows dozens of men, dressed mainly in white robes, sitting on the floor as they listened to a sermon.
Suddenly, an explosion is heard nearby and the men leap to their feet in panic and confusion. Other footage shows men fleeing for their lives as they run out of the mosque and onto the street.
Photographs showed rows of bodies, covered in bloodied sheets, lined up inside the mosque where they had been praying just a short time before.
Suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches as worshippers were gathering on Palm Sunday in April of this year. At least 45 people were killed in the two attacks in Alexandria and and the city of Tanta.
Four months before that, a suicide bomber killed another 29 people in a chapel next to a Christian cathedral in Cairo.
After both bombings, Mr Sisi vowed that the Egyptian state would protect religious sites from attacks but so far the military has been unable to curb the campaign of violence.