Terror strikes in Egypt

Egypt's worst terror attack kills more than 80, signaling jihad has come home.

By , Staff writer

Editor's note: This story was originally posted July 23, 2005.

Two powerful car-bombs struck at the heart of Egypt's $6 billion tourism industry early Saturday, killing 83 people from at least 5 countries. Officials say the death toll is likely to rise.

The bombs in Sharm al-Sheikh, a vibrant resort town that is the hub for the popular beaches and dive spots along Egypt's Red Sea, confirmed to analysts that the global jihad has come home to its intellectual birthplace after eight years of surprising calm.

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Three bombs exploded in the city between 1 and 1:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, two car-bombs that witnesses said were still moving when they exploded, according to Associated Press, and a smaller bomb on a popular tourist walk near the beach. Most of the damage was done at the Ghazala Garden's Hotel, where the lobby was reduced to twisted medal and rubble, while at least 19 Egyptians were killed at a café in Sharm al-Sheikh's old city.

Egypt's first terrorist attack since 1997 came last October in a series of coordinated suicide attacks on the resort of Taba, along the Israeli border, that killed 34. Those attacks were followed by two smaller attacks on tourists in Cairo this April that killed three foreigners.

What ties the Taba, Sharm al-Sheikh and Cairo attacks together is that they were all attacks on Egyptian tourism, the country's largest foreign currency earner, and in that sense were clearly attempts to weaken Hosni Mubarak's regime. "Tourism is the main money earner, and if you hit that you hit the state," says Josh Stacher, a political scientist in Cairo. "You can't blow up an army induction center or get at the country's leaders, so you hit tourism."

The car-bombing in Taba, and the April attacks in Cairo were presented by the Egyptian authorities as carried out by a small group of radicals with no ties to existing Islamist organizations. The government has said repeatedly that it had caught or killed everyone involved.

Egyptian security officials say the tough tactics they'd used on militants in the 1990s - and a pledge to renounce violence that extracted from the country's militant groups - had removed most of the terror threats inside the country, and said further attempts were unlikely. Thousand's of residents on the Sinai peninsula, particularly around the city of Al-Arish, were rounded up after the Taba arrest, and a trial for men linked to that blast was scheduled to resume on Monday.

A statement was posted on an Islamic website by Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Qaeda, in Syria and Egypt, laying claim to Saturday's attacks, the Associated Press news agency reported, although the claim has not been verified.

Many analysts have said they suspect that there were separate cells involved in the earlier attack on Taba, which Israeli officials said they strongly suspected had links to Al Qaeda, and the more amateurish efforts in Cairo.

"There are two running problems here" says Stacher. "The Cairo-based group have a domestic political and economic agenda, whereas the Sinai attacks probably show anger at Egyptian foreign policy and its regional role, whether that's anger at the improving relationship with Israel or at Egypt's efforts to help the US in Iraq."

The well-made bombs and professionally executed attacks on the city most wealthy Egyptian's refer to affectionately as "Sharm," and where President Hosni Mubarak keeps his principal home, highlight an expanding security problem for Egypt. The attack happened less than three miles from the Mubarak compound, in a place were security roadblocks frequently check cars coming in and out of the city.

"The forces of terrorism won't stop Egypt from achieving development and we won't let anyone threaten the country's stability," said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who visited the bombing sites.

Interior Minister Habib al-Adly told MENA, Egypt's state news agency, that the government has information that shows a link between the Taba bombings and Saturday morning's attack. Mr. Adly, whose predecessor Hassan Al-Alfi was sacked after the 1997 terror attack that killed over 60 tourists in Luxor, a gateway to ancient Egyptian monuments, said: "We have indications that could lead security services to those responsible for these terrorist operations."

Militant Islamist movements emerged here early in the 20th century to fight British colonialism and later morphed into Islamist movements determined to topple what they saw as secular "infidel" regimes.

Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist militant who was executed by the Egyptian state in 1966 laid much of the intellectual groundwork for organizations like Al Qaeda and its imitators. Today, Al Qaeda's chief thinker is the Egyptian exile Ayman al-Zawahiri, who merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad with Al Qaeda in 1998, and has repeatedly called for attacks on the US and Egypt since.

But the 1997 Luxor attacks devastated Egypt's tourism industry for years, and hurt the livelihoods of millions of Egyptians, which turned many decisively against domestic militants and prompted groups like the Gamma Islamiyah to promise they would not carry out more attacks in Egypt.

But the 1997 Luxor attacks devastated Egypt's tourism industry for years, and hurt the livelihoods of millions of Egyptians, which turned many decisively against domestic militants and prompted groups like the Gamma Islamiyah to promise they would not carry out more attacks in Egypt.

Since Taba, terrorism analysts have speculated that a new generation of militants is emerging, that don't have direct experience with either the government's brutal tactics or with the domestic backlash against such attacks.

Sharm al-Sheikh is a late night town, and its streets and cafes are typically bustling in the early morning hours. The city as at the center of a long-running government ad campaign that touts the area as the "Red Sea Riviera," which runs on CNN International.

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