Extremism rises among Egypt's poor Bedouin
Palestinians aided the Sinai terrorist cell blamed for a deadly April bombing, Egypt said Tuesday.
EL-ARISH, EGYPT — As Egypt's security forces complete their massive manhunt for suspects in three suicide bombings in the Sinai resort of Dahab last month, experts and residents say it's clear that this city and the sprawling desert and craggy mountains around North Sinai have become a new breeding ground for violent Islamic extremism in Egypt.
It is here in this vast and isolated region, traditionally known for smuggling, that extremists have planned high-profile attacks on nearby resorts, officials say.
But experts and residents agree that the reason behind growing Islamic extremism is not only Sinai's expanse and isolation. Also responsible are the desperate living conditions among many of North Sinai's residents, which have made young men angry enough to commit recent terrorist attacks, including three at tourist resorts and two against international peacekeepers since October 2004, killing about 120 people in all.
The government must address these conditions, says local businessman Safwat el-Gelbana, if it wants to solve its Islamic extremist problem. "Unless there is political vision, no solution can be found," he says. "The generals alone cannot solve the problem. This is one of the reasons people turn to religion."
On Tuesday, Egypt's Ministry of Interior released a statement, announcing that it had caught or killed most of the suspects in the Dahab attacks. Officials said that 22 were in police custody and seven were killed, including the man police say was the terrorist group's leader, Nasser Khamis el-Mellahi. Mr. Mellahi, alleged leader of Tawhid wa el-Jihad, died during clashes with security forces near El-Arish earlier this month. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when Egypt's Ministry of Interior released its statement.]
The statement also said that Palestinians helped finance and train this group, the first time Egyptian authorities have so specifically linked Gaza militants to the Sinai bombings. El-Arish is just 30 miles from the Gaza border.
Interior Ministry officials say that most of the Dahab bombing suspects are Bedouins, formerly nomadic tribes with distinct tribal laws and traditions. Security forces have also suspected North Sinai's Bedouin and non-Bedouin residents in other Sinai attacks, including bombings at the Sinai resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh last summer, and Taba in 2004.
Residents and experts say that Egypt's new generation of Islamic militants is drawn mostly from 18- to 30-year-old men; some are educated, some not; many are unemployed. Living in and around El-Arish, North Sinai's capital, and the surrounding mountains, many become isolated from their families, shunning the community of "nonbelievers" or being disowned by them first.
With few prospects, these young men are particularly susceptible to the extremist ideas of radicals, like Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, calling for a global jihad or holy war against non-Muslims, says Abed el-Kader Mubarak, a journalist with the independent weekly el-Osboua. He is also a member of El-Arish's Bedouin community, and has discussed Islam with the city's young radicals.
"These young men are frustrated. They have no work, always sitting at home. They become an easy target for these ideas," says Mr. Mubarak.
Residents here say if the government doesn't change its strategy and deal with Egypt's growing Islamic extremist problem by improving the area's living conditions, increasing numbers of young men will continue to join extremist groups. "It will happen again," says businessman Mr. Gelbana. "We need development, jobs, freedom, hope."
The poor Mediterranean city of El-Arish and the surrounding North Sinai region have a history of mutual distrust between residents and the government. Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula for 12 years until a peace treaty was signed with Egypt in 1979 and since then North Sinai's residents say the government has neglected and discriminated against them.
A constant complaint is over rampant unemployment - estimated as high as 30 percent. "No one is working," says Abou Salem, a Bedouin, living in a squalid camp of ramshackle huts made of sticks and plastic sheeting near El-Arish. "Even the ones graduating from school are not finding jobs. They are suffocating."
Six years ago, Abou Salem and his tribe descended from their mountain home to this scrappy strip of desert, wanting to be closer to water, food and, most importantly, work. They now wait for olive picking season to make just $2 a day.
Residents also fume that salty water pours from their taps, that they can't get senior jobs with Egypt's military or police, and because the whole area is considered a military zone, that they can't own land.
"When I see that there is no hope, that I can't find a job, for myself or my son, that there is no real development, not even water to drink, what can I do?" asks Khaled Arafat, a member of the People's Council for the North Sinai's Citizen Rights. "We are not second-class citizens. We are class-10 citizens," he says.
In response, government officials argue that North Sinai receives more development funding than any of Egypt's other governorates. Since Israel completely withdrew from Sinai in 1982, the Egyptian government spent more than $4.5 billion on developing Sinai's infrastructure, including water, electricity and roads, according to General Ahmed Salah el-Din, North Sinai's deputy governor.
"The Delta won't see in the next 100 years the spending on development North Sinai has seen in the last 24," says Mr. Din.
Residents and local leaders, however, also complain about the security situation, the arbitrary arrests and daily humiliations from police since the terrorist attacks. They say they can't walk freely in the streets without the fear of being detained.
"Police can do anything. They can take people from anywhere for any reason," says El-Arish businessman Emad Bullock.
"We know lots of people who have been picked up," says Bedouin Abou Salem. "The police take them two or three days. If they have files on them they keep them. If not, they let them go."
After the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, Abou Salem says police detained him, leaving him handcuffed in prison for a week.
Security may be tight in North Sinai now, but everyone agrees that it's much better than after the 2004 Taba attacks when police arrested 3,000 people, many of them suspects' family members, and detained and tortured them to extract information.
When police couldn't find suspect Ossama Mohamed Abdel Ghani they arrested 11 members of his Bedouin tribe, including women, say family members. His brother, Ayman, was held with the other men for five months.
In the beginning he was tortured. "They hung us with our arms behind our back, using electrical shocks and questioned us," says Ayman, sitting with his mother in a small room with paint-chipped walls in a poor El-Arish neighborhood.
"They wanted information on my brother. I wasn't even a suspect," he says.
The more moderate security tactics of late have relieved locals, government officials and residents agree, making them more willing to help security forces apprehend terrorist suspects. Police were able to track down the alleged Tawhid wa el-Jihad leader Mellahi earlier this month with local help.
While less aggressive security is seen as a step in the right direction toward improving life in North Sinai, residents stress that much more is needed.