Sinai terrorist group targets Egypt's tourist industry

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which took responsibility for Sunday's bus bombing at Taba, says its new economic war aims to 'paralyze' Egypt's government.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Foreigners wait to cross to Egypt at the Israeli side of the Taba crossing near the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Sunday, Feb 16, 2014.

The most notorious Sinai terrorist group has now declared a new front: Egypt’s tourism industry. 

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bus bombing at Taba, a popular crossing point for tourists headed from Israel to Egypt’s Sinai resorts, in a statement posted on jihadi forums late yesterday. The bombing, which marks the first attack on tourists since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, killed three South Korean tourists and their Egyptian driver. 

The Al Qaeda-inspired group heralded the “hero” who carried out the bus bombing, and cast the attack as part of a broader attempt to undermine Egypt’s military leaders, who overthrew Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer and stepped up cooperation with Israel to stamp out Sinai militant groups. 

"This comes within our assault in the economic war on this traitorous agent regime," said the statement attributed to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. "We will target [the Egyptian regime's] economic interests everywhere to paralyze its hands from what they do to the Muslims."

In a December statement, the group said that it considered the Egyptian military "non-Muslim because it fights those who attempt to impose Islamic law, and protects a secular form of government... We are the most resolute and determined to carry out the command of (God) and his messenger to do jihad against you and fight you until all the religion is for (God)," it said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group.

Israeli defense experts have labeled Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – whose name refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and surrounding sanctuary in Jerusalem – as the most dangerous militant organization in Sinai, not least of all for its August 2011 attack on Israeli civilians near Eilat. 

According to a tally by the Long War Journal, 305 attacks have been launched by Sinai militant groups since the July 3 overthrow of Mr. Morsi, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was behind many of the worst attacks, including a Nov. 20 car bombing that killed 11 Egyptian security forces.

The group, founded in 2011, focused on targets in Israel and the Sinai until last summer, but it has now spearheaded a broadening of operations  to mainland Egypt, including Cairo. Those attacks have included assassination attempts on top Egyptian security officials and a series of car bombings targeting security directorates. While civilians were among those injured in such attacks, Sunday’s bus bombing marks the first time that the Sinai insurgency has targeted tourists. 

While Egypt’s tourism industry has been hard-hit by the political turmoil of the past few years, its Sinai beach resorts have still been able to attract significant tourist traffic; of the 9.5 million tourists in Egypt last year, nearly three-quarters of them vacationed in the Sinai, according to the Associated Press.

Tourism in the Sinai has been the target of militant attacks in the not too distant past. In October of 2004, 34 people were killed in coordinated bombings of the Hilton Hotel in Taba and a nearby beach camp popular with Israelis. In July of 2005, over 80 people were killed by coordinated car bombs in the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Now, Sinai militants are warning all tourists to leave by Feb. 20 or be killed.

Egypt, which can hardly afford a further blow to its tourism industry given the poor state of its economy, has vowed to fight back.

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