Attacks in Egypt: homegrown or part of global jihad?

Several obscure Islamist groups have claimed credit for Thursday's suicide attacks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last week's deadly suicide attacks on two resorts along Egypt's Aqaba coast have drawn Cairo into a circle of US allies - including Turkey, Spain, and Saudi Arabia - struck by terrorists in recent months.

It could be weeks before a credible picture emerges of who conducted the attacks, but the violence has already left Egypt's image - of a country that had combined deal-making with tough security measures to quash domestic terrorism - in tatters.

Israeli officials blamed a group aligned with Al Qaeda, though Egyptian officials say they are leaving all options open.

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But the strike came just a week after Al Qaeda's No. 2 figure Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, urged global jihadis in an Internet statement to redouble their efforts to strike out at Israel, the US, and their allies in retaliation for the latest violence in the Gaza Strip.

Most of the damage was done at around 10 p.m. at the Hilton in Taba, a stone's throw from the Israeli border. A 400-pound car bomb took off the front of the 10-story hotel. Two smaller bombs at a nearby campground in Ras Shitan an hour later killed about five people. Israel said many of the 34 dead were its nationals. Russia also said 12 Russians were still missing after the attack.

Egypt suffered through seven terrorist attacks on tourists in the 1990s, culminating in the 1997 Luxor attack that left 58 dead and greatly damaged Egypt's tourist industry. Last week's attack was the first inside Egypt since then.

Taba was the last piece of Egypt returned by Israel in the settlement of the 1967 war between the two countries. The deal had been made by President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamists in 1981 for having made peace with Israel. The Hilton was built by an Israeli businessman, and the historic ties and proximity to home have long made it popular with Israeli tourists.

If the attack is shown to have been carried out by Islamists, as seems likely, experts said it was probably done by a small group that has forged new alliances in recent years. Egypt's main Islamist terror group, the Jemaah Islamiyah, which was behind the Luxor attack, declared a cease-fire with the government in 1999. Most experts say it no longer has the capability to mount such attacks.

"With the domestic groups, everything changed after Luxor,'' says Montasser El-Zayat, a lawyer and former militant who was jailed in the early 1980s. "A new thinking came about that such attacks were not only counterproductive but wrong. The hard-liners either left Egypt or ended up in jail."

Mr. Zayat says he doubts the attacks signal a full-scale return to hostilities between Egypt and domestic Islamists; he's convinced that the ideological shift has stuck.

He's also skeptical that a Palestinian group was behind the attack. Egypt has sought to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians over the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and has recently hosted a number of leaders of the hard-line Palestinian group Hamas. He says he doubts the Palestinians would put that support at risk.

Jemaah Islamiyah has said the attacks were unlawful under Islam. The murders were also condemned by Hamas, which says its attacks are focused on Israel, and other Palestinian groups. Three little-known Islamist groups claimed responsibility. One promised more bombings of "despotic" Egypt.

Al Qaeda and likeminded jihad groups have long attacked Egypt for its peace agreement with Israel and its close ties to the US. Egypt receives more than $2 billion a year in US military and general aid, making it the third-largest recipient in the world after Israel and Iraq.

Mr. Zawahiri, who merged his organization with Al Qaeda in 1998, sees the US as the main threat to Muslims in the world. He has repeatedly urged attacks on America and its allies. "Zawahiri and the people like him fled Egypt and shifted their focus to the US,'' says Zayat.

In that respect, those hard-liners may have now come full circle, seeing Egypt's efforts at mediating with Israel as a betrayal and the Sinai resorts filled with Israeli tourists as rich targets. To many militant groups, Israel and the US are seen as one and the same, particularly since the collapse of peace talks and the start of the latest intifada four years ago.

"If the people who did this want us to disengage from the peace process, then they've made a mistake,'' says Magdy Rady, the spokesman for the Egyptian cabinet. "I don't think it will make the Palestinians reluctant or the Israelis reluctant to continue to work with us for peace."

The aftermath of the attack also showed the deep and lingering suspicions toward their old enemies on the part of many Egyptians. Diaa Rashwan, an expert on terrorism and Islamist politics at the government-sponsored Al Ahram think tank, says he believes a faction within Israel may have led the attack to make it difficult for Egypt to continue its mediation efforts.

"I'm ready to change my views if new information comes to light,'' says Mr. Rashwan. "If Israel's hypothesis that it's Al Qaeda is confirmed then that will be a real crisis for Egypt's economy, because it will probably mean that they have, the ability to carry out more attacks here."

Mr. Rady says the government is convinced that Thursday's attack is not a return to full-scale violence, and doubts it will have much impact on tourism. He says the attack appears far more like a strike on Israel than an attempt to destabilize Egypt.

"We don't feel the balance we've achieved has been disturbed,'' he says. "This event has a very special character in terms of location and timing, so we have a strong feeling that it's not the first in a series."

Also underlining the government's apparent belief that it is not facing a crisis was President Hosni Mubarak's decision to carry on with a scheduled trip to Italy and France over the weekend.

Dozens of people have been detained since the attack for questioning, but Mr. Rady says that he can't confirm any arrests.

Anonymous Egyptian security officials, quoted by newswires, say that 15 people have been arrested so far, most Bedouin tribesman who were believed to supply the explosives and provide other logistics for the attacks.

Poor Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, who have traversed the region's borders for generations, are involved in the smuggling of marijuana and people into Israel, and officials said any involvement on their part was likely for money, rather than ideology.

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