Searching for clues in Egypt's resort blasts

Dozens of suspects in Monday's blasts have been detained. Militants struck again near Gaza Wednesday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As Egyptian authorities continued to search for suspects in Monday's bombings at the Sinai resort of Dahab that killed at least 18 people and wounded scores more, two suicide bombers struck in the Sinai Peninsula Wednesday near a multinational peacekeeping forces base close to Gaza.

Analysts say the group that carried out the attack near Gaza is likely the same, or connected, to the one behind Monday's triple bombing. Many say this group, part of an increasingly dangerous network of extremists in Egypt, could also be responsible for the deadly attacks in popular Sinai resort towns in October 2004 and July 2005.

While their exact identity is unknown, experts say they are small, decentralized, and very secretive. They don't have direct ties to Al Qaeda, but they share its radical ideology. "This new generation of radicals is very dangerous," says journalist and Islamic extremist expert Mohamed Salah. "They are willing to perform suicide attacks and no one knows who they are."

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Egyptian authorities have detained dozens for questioning in connection to Monday's blasts, which ripped through the popular tourist resort of Dahab during one of the country's most popular holidays. Three of the detained are Egyptian computer engineers carrying fake papers who arrived in Dahab Sunday and left an hour after the attacks, according to official reports.

But it was still unclear Wednesday if these bombings were the result of planted explosives or suicide bombers.

In Wednesday's explosion near the Multinational Forces and Observers base only the suicide attackers died, according to Egyptian security officials.

Experts agree that Egypt is witnessing a new, reconfigured Islamic extremist movement of independent, splinter cells that is not controlled by a central network and can disappear easily into Egyptian society.

These organizations are smaller and less coordinated than Egypt's traditional extremist groups, Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad, which carried out regular, violent attacks against police, government officials, and foreigners in the 1990s. The government has been able to capture members of these new extremist organizations after recent attacks in Sinai, but authorities have had difficulty catching their leaders.

"It seems that whenever the authorities are able to uncover some of the individuals that may have played a role in the attacks, they hit a brick wall," says Sajjan Gohel, head of analysis at the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation, which studies security issues. "They still don't know the mystery men who provided the financing or logistics [for these attacks]. These men set up the plot and then disappear."

Experts say that this new generation of militant groups is largely made up of young people, suffering economically and with little hope for the future. They are very affected by regional and international events, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and pine for a paradise-like afterlife.

Experts disagree over the role the Bedouins, the Sinai Peninsula's indigenous inhabitants, have played in Egypt's recent terrorist attacks. Some said that the militant organizations have mainly coopted the traditionally nomadic Bedouins, who are particularly familiar with the Sinai's terrain, to help with terrorist operations, perhaps paying them to participate.

Still others say that the normally apolitical Bedouin youth are more active participants, having become more religious and convinced of radical interpretations of Islam. Some even say that Bedouins were the main perpetrators of Monday's attacks in Dahab to revenge the mass arrests of their friends and family after Sinai's previous terrorist incidents.

The main goal of these new militant organizations, experts say, is to make Egypt an Islamic state based on strict interpretation of the religion. After all, Egypt remains the ideological home of Al Qaeda - the network's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian native.

"They believe in the Salafy interpretation of Islam, which is very conservative," says political commentator Moustafa Kamel el-Sayed. "They are opposed to manifestations of modernity, which they consider incompatible with Islamic teachings. So they would be opposed to tourism and certain types of behavior. No women should be unveiled, for example."

To reach their goals, the new militant organizations are attacking the state and Egypt's lucrative tourism industry, just as Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad did in the 1990s. Tourism accounted for $6.4 million in 2005 and remains the top source of foreign exchange.

Experts don't see any links between the new militant organizations and Jemaah Islamiyah or Islamic Jihad. Jemaah Islamiyah renounced violence in the late 1990s and the massive police arrests of Islamic Jihad's leadership in the 1990s has caused this group to largely disappear, experts say. However, some experts sees the situation in Egypt starting to resemble that of the Islamic uprising in the 1990s when Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad were active.

In early April, the Egyptian government released around 950 members of the Jemaah Islamiyah from prison, obviously confident that this organization has permanently renounced its violent ways. Some experts, however, warned that the government may regret this action.

"The Egyptian government may have made a mistake in releasing these people prematurely," says Gohel. "You won't reform major terrorist groups. They will just operate at a smaller level that the government can't monitor effectively."

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