washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > Near East > Egypt

Egypt Jails Five In Sinai Attacks

Ministry Says Primitive Plot Relied on Locals

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A17

AMMAN, Jordan, Oct. 25 -- Egyptian authorities announced the arrest Monday of five people allegedly involved in helping to plan the coordinated bombings earlier this month at three resorts on the Sinai Peninsula, and said the Palestinian leader of the attacks died accidentally in the explosions that killed at least 33 others.

In a statement, Egypt's Interior Ministry identified Ayad Said Salah, a Palestinian living in the northern Sinai, as the leader of a group of roughly nine men who carried out the Oct. 7 attacks on the Taba Hilton and two camp-style resorts farther south along the Red Sea. The statement suggested the attacks, which killed at least 12 Israelis, were meant as a response to violence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

The Interior Ministry made no mention of involvement by al Qaeda, and described a primitive operation carried out by first-time attackers who relied on members of the nomadic Bedouin tribes that populate the desert peninsula for logistical help. The ministry did not say whether the investigation is continuing or whether Egyptian officials still suspect that the local attackers may have received some outside help.

The scenario outlined in general terms contradicts recent statements by Israeli officials, who theorized early on that the attacks were part of a global campaign against the United States and Israel.

The Interior Ministry statement also said a second attacker, an Egyptian identified as Suleiman Ahmed Saleh Flayfil, died in the explosion that sheared off the facade of the popular hotel. Two other Egyptians, Mohamed Ahmed Saleh Flayfil, Suleiman's brother, and Hammad Gaman Gomah, remain at large. Egyptian authorities accused them of carrying out the nearly simultaneous attacks on a pair of tourist camps in Ras Shytan, an enclave of rustic resorts 35 miles south of Taba.

The remaining suspects were also Egyptians, the statement said, including several from Bedouin tribes. The suspects whose arrests were announced were allegedly low-level operatives, responsible for collecting the explosives and the three cars stolen for the attacks.

The Sinai bombings marked the largest attack in Egypt since the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor, and prompted early claims by investigators that seasoned Arab militants allied with al Qaeda had a hand in what appeared to be a highly sophisticated strike on vulnerable targets. Egyptian officials have cracked down on domestic militant groups in recent years, but have expressed fear that rising violence in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq are flooding the battlefield with anonymous recruits who are difficult to track.

The primary target of the attacks earlier this month appeared to be Israeli tourists, who have turned Egypt's Red Sea coast into a popular weekend destination. Israeli investigators, who were allowed access to the three crime scenes, have not commented officially on their independent investigation. Earlier this month, however, Col. Zohar Alafi, deputy director of the Israeli military's intelligence research division, told the Israeli parliament that "this is an octopus with al Qaeda at its heart."

The ministry's statement said Salah -- whose identity, along with Flayfil's, has been verified through DNA tests on their remains -- had turned to "religious fanaticism" after he was convicted of rape. The statement said he planned the attacks "in reaction to the deteriorating situation in the occupied territories and targeted the Israelis staying at the hotels and the two camps."

Since early in the investigation, Egyptian officials have favored the theory that the attackers were likely inspired by the continuing violence in the Palestinian territories, including conflict in the Gaza Strip. Salah, who died when the car bomb he allegedly rigged to a rudimentary timer outside the Taba Hilton detonated prematurely, lived in the northern Sinai town of el-Arish, near the Gaza border.

But Egyptian officials had essentially ruled out the direct involvement of Palestinian militant groups in the bombings because of their good relations with the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who is helping organize a Palestinian security force in advance of Israel's scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.

Egyptian officials confirmed that the three cars stuffed with explosives had been stolen. The statement also said the explosives were harvested from artillery shells and other battlefield detritus scattered across the Sinai, where fighting took place in World War II and Egypt's 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. The statement contradicts comments made last week by anonymous Egyptian officials, who said the explosives were the same kind found in Sinai rock quarries. The timers were assembled from washing machine parts, the Interior Ministry statement said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company