Less than three weeks after two coordinated bombings killed 34 people at a Sinai Peninsula resort popular with Israelis, Egyptian authorities say they've identified their mastermind: A Palestinian resident of Egypt who scratched out a living driving a minibus.
The Interior Ministry said the Palestinian and Gaza native, Ayad Said Salah, had become a "religious fanatic" after serving time on a rape conviction and was incensed by the ongoing Israeli offensive in the nearby Gaza Strip. He and an Egyptian coconspirator were killed delivering a massive bomb to the Taba Hilton, just over the border from Israel. Most of the casualties were Israelis.
The ministry statement, which says the government has five plotters in custody, did not put to rest the question of how much, if any, help Mr. Salah's group had in carrying out the attack. Israeli security officials say they suspect Al Qaeda of involvement in the bombing. But the Egyptian statement indicated the nine men involved in the attack were a lone cell seemingly operating in isolation from other militant groups.
Egyptians have been at pains to paint the attack as directed at Israel and not an indication their own country is likely to be engulfed in a wave of Islamic terrorism similar to a spate of attacks in the 1980s and 1990s that culminated with the murder of nearly 50 tourists in Luxor in 1997. That attack devastated Egypt's tourism industry for years and helped drive the country into a recession.
"The motivation of the accident is clearly related to what's going on in the occupied territories, because the planner was a Palestinian who was negatively motivated by what's going on there,'' says Magdy Rady, spokesman for the Egyptian Cabinet, after a briefing from Interior Minister Habib el-Adly. "The detainees statements showed that there was no organization behind their attack."
Though that partially assuages fears that the country could be headed for another season of unrest, the spreading animosity toward Israel in the region presents a new and stark challenge to Arab governments, with anger at Israel drawing young men into militant circles across the region. "This links to what our leadership always says: There's a need to end the conflict in the region and find peace," says Mr. Rady.
Egypt has a particular problem in this regard because of the peace agreement it signed with Israel 20 years ago and Egypt's possible role in providing security in Gaza after an Israeli pull-out that is expected to take place next year.
While analysts say it looks as if the informal cease-fire agreements Egypt reached in the late 1990s with domestic militant groups appear to be holding, they say the involvement of new actors inside the country can not be ruled out. In particular, they say it would be highly unusual for a group with no bombmaking experience or outside help to carry out such a successful first operation.
"I don't know yet whether we'll see some traces or evidence of an external force - i.e. Al Qaeda - in this incident, but the fact is it would be unusual if it was in fact carried out by an indigenous organization without help from the outside," says Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert and author at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Schweitzer says the operation, with a massive bomb shearing off the front of the Taba Hilton and a smaller one detonating at a nearby campsite an hour later, displayed a high degree of sophistication and planning. "The modus operandi is one we've seen time and again with Al Qaeda and its affiliates,'' says Schweitzer. "But never say never - it's possible they were on their own."
The Interior Ministry details a group of nine plotters drawn from the lower rungs of Sinai's tourist-driven economy who managed to steal three cars to be used in the attack, obtain more than one ton of TNT and explosives, and carry out surveillance of their targets without detection by the country's sprawling internal security organization.
The ministry said the Egyptian, Suleiman Ahmed Flaifil, died along with Mr. Salah; that five men are in custody in connection with the attack; and that two suspects, Flaifil's brother, Mohammed, and Hamad Gaman Gomah, who planted the smaller bomb at the campsite, remain at large.
While the attacks underlined the severe threats to Israeli citizens in much of the world today, from an Egyptian security standpoint there is room for both comfort and concern. Comfort because the attacks' narrow focus on Israelis in the Sinai should leave the rest of the country fairly safe. Concern, because it shows that informal groups inspired by the Palestinian situation are capable of carrying out devastating attacks.
Plots by such informal groups, by their very nature, are difficult for intelligence agencies to penetrate because they usually have no history and few red flags in the records of their members. "The prime minister considers it a new trend in terrorism - plots that are too simple to anticipate," says Rady, the Egyptian spokesman. "We should all be concerned about this."