In Egypt, resurgence of militant Islamists
Third Sinai blast in 18 months shows new strength of domestic terror groups.
CAIRO AND BAGHDAD — Three bombs spaced just minutes apart ripped through the crowded Egyptian beach resort of Dahab on Monday, killing at least 18 people and confirming the extent to which domestic terror groups have reestablished themselves after years of relative peace.
It's the third time since October 2004 that Egypt's popular Sinai Peninsula beaches have been targeted. Prior to that first attack - three suicide bombs that killed 31 at Taba - Egypt had not experienced any terror attacks since 1997.
After each previous strike, Egyptian authorities sought to paint the bombings as isolated incidents that could be prevented in the future by stepped-up security measures. But while analysts say that the government was successful in dismantling domestic terror networks of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad in the 1990s, the intellectual roots of modern Islamist militancy run deep in Egypt and appear to be bearing new fruit.
Egyptian police said they weren't sure if Monday's bombs at two cafes and the Ghazali supermarket were suicide attacks or not. The government said Tuesday that it had made 10 arrests. Four of the dead were foreign tourists, the rest Egyptians.
Egypt has moved hundreds of officers into the area, shut most of the roads out of the city, and established a network of checkpoints.
Dahab, once the playground of backpackers and hippies, saw $500 million in new investments last year. Like the rest of the peninsula's beaches, it has shifted toward higher-spending tourists.
Since the tourism industry rebounded well after each of the past two attacks, the mood in Dahab in the wake of the latest attack was grim, but hopeful. Tourism is Egypt's second-largest foreign-currency earner.
"The workers and business owners here are very angry," says Emad Nawar, a Cairo real-estate agent on vacation in Dahab. "I've talked to some who just finished a small business project that they were about to sell. Still, they hope that business will bounce back quickly like it did after the Taba bombings."
In addition to attacks on the Sinai, there have been at least three smaller terrorist incidents involving tourists in Cairo since 2004. In the 1990s, domestic terror groups targeted tourism in an effort to undermine the country's finances, to devastating effect. The 1997 attack on foreign tourists in Luxor sent Egypt into a deep recession.
Memories of that past are still fresh for some. "It's a disaster," says Mohamed Kabany, owner of Dahab's Inmo Hotel. "It could mean that we won't have business for the next year or two."
Still, many average Egyptians were furious at the attackers, which offers hope, since anger at the Islamic Jihad in the 1990s helped undermine support for that group. "No religion, not Islam or Christianity, accepts killing," says Lamia Farouk, a young mother in Cairo. "The people who did this are deranged."
It was business as usual in Dahab Tuesday despite the bombings, according to sources there. Shops opened, as did restaurants. Hotels reported few early checkouts. Tourists were out enjoying the sun, residents said.
"We are continuing," says Hany Aly, manager of the Neptune Hotel. "Our hotel, diving center, and coffee shop are full.... Life is going back to normal. This is to show those who set off these bombs that we are strong."
Located next to one of the bombing sites, the Neptune Hotel had its windows shattered. New glass has already been ordered, Aly said.
There were also several small antiterror protests in Dahab Tuesday. About 100 people marched through Dahab in remembrance of the blasts' victims on Tuesday.
Many Dahab residents and visitors seemed shocked by the horror of the bombings. "I was sitting on a high balcony and could see everything," says Mr. Nawar. "There was a big fire and the land was shaking like an earthquake. I heard people crying and an Egyptian boy, maybe eight to nine years old, looking for his father. It was terrible."
Nawar, a Christian, says he may take his faith more seriously now: He would have been at the Ghazali market when the blast occurred if a friend hadn't delayed him.
The attack came during the Egyptian spring holiday of Shem al-Nessim and a day before what Egypt calls Sinai Liberation Day, marking the return of the peninsula by Israel after the two countries agreed to a peace deal in 1979. That peace deal, and the repressive approach of President Hosni Mubarak's government to all Islamist movements, has long made the country a target of militants. Much of Al Qaeda's senior leadership, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, are exiled Egyptians.
While there is no evidence that Mr. Zawahiri's last videotape from March, or Mr. bin Laden's long screed on Sunday urging attacks against dozens of nations, helped trigger the strike, experts say Al Qaeda continues to serve as a potent guiding light for militants.
Bin Laden's audiotape, released by Al Jazeera, came too close to attacks that would have taken at least weeks of planning to be directly involved. But Al Qaeda, with its senior leaders cut off from directly contacting global followers, has evolved into a source of inspiration for a host of smaller Islamist groups who may share its goals but plan and execute attacks on their own.
That's been the pattern worldwide. Global terror attacks have soared since 2003, with anger at the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inspiring new operatives.
"Virtually every single attack since 9/11 can be laid at the doors of other terrorist groups, even though they may have been inspired by bin Laden's ideology of global jihad,'' says M.J. Gohel, president of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, which focuses on security issues. "After 9/11, Al Qaeda effectively became decentralized ... and it continues as a deadly source of ideological inspiration for mass murder but there isn't any kind of central organization."
Increasingly, that's the view of other experts. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Dia Rashwan, one of Egypt's leading scholars on Islamist groups, says small, cellular groups are emerging without direct ties to Al Qaeda or each other.
He says these new structures make it much harder for intelligence services to penetrate them than the old, more highly coordinated groups.