By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 25, 2005
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, July 24 -- Investigators probing Egypt's worst terrorist attack believe that three men, one of them still possibly at large, carried out the series of bombings in this Red Sea resort, and have determined that the explosives were similar to those used in an attack at another resort in the Sinai Peninsula last year, a senior official said Sunday.
The attackers delivered the explosives in two small green Isuzu pickups early Saturday, said Brig. Hossam Serafi, the chief of investigations for South Sinai, which covers Sharm el-Sheikh. He said he believed the assailants had intended to bomb another hotel, the 292-room Iberotel Grand Sharm, but were stopped at a checkpoint, and instead detonated the explosives in a busy arcade of shops. He said the layout of that hotel bore resemblances to that of the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, whose facade was sheared off in one of Saturday's blasts.
"I believe that the market was not the target, but that's my conclusion," he said.
A day after the three blasts killed as many as 88 people, shattering a seaside city that was the Egyptian equivalent of a boomtown on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Serafi said he and other investigators were focusing their probe on possible links with the bombings on Oct. 7, 2004, at the Taba Hilton, near Egypt's border with Israel, and two beaches farther south.
Those bombings killed 34 people -- at the time, the worst terrorist attack in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Investigators had blamed the 2004 bombings on a cell led by a Palestinian resident from the northern Sinai town of El Arish and discounted connections to any broader network. The investigation led to the arrest of 3,000 people in a campaign that prompted widespread charges of police abuse and torture. Under heavy security, two of the men blamed for those attacks went on trial in Egypt on Saturday.
"It's similar to Taba," Serafi said. "There have been some figures on the run since the Taba explosions."
He said investigators believed the trail might again lead to El Arish, on the Sinai's Mediterranean coast, a suggestion that Egypt's interior minister, Habib Adli, had made the day before. "There's a direction that points toward Arish," he said.
If true, the attacks Saturday on a luxury hotel, an arcade of shops and a parking lot along Naama Bay would demonstrate a remarkable degree of coordination and resources for a homegrown cell. Serafi said that like the explosions in Taba, pickup trucks were used, the blasts were spaced just minutes apart and the "method of carrying it out" was similar. The explosives in Saturday's attacks, however, were mixed with nails to maximize casualties, unlike the bombs used last year in Taba.
The explosives used Saturday were gathered and assembled in Egypt, Serafi said, then brought to Sharm el-Sheikh along desert paths through the Sinai, much of it rugged, barren mountains intersected by ravines and canyons known best by Bedouins.
The bombs were detonated in succession after 1 a.m. Saturday. The first blast, in a pickup truck driven by a suicide bomber, left a crater 10 feet wide and about three feet deep in the middle of a street that passed a two-story shopping mall and an arcade of shops, as well as cafes packed with owners who had just closed their shops. The second, also a suicide bomb, plowed into the reception area of the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, collapsing its roof, Serafi said.
The third, apparently carried by the person who is still at large, followed minutes later. Smaller than the others, the explosive device was left in a suitcase, police said. It detonated down the street in a parking lot for taxis, as terrified tourists and residents fled the second bombing, some trying to find cabs to go home.
So far, two groups have asserted responsibility. On an Internet site, one of them identified itself as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al Qaeda in Syria and Egypt, the same group that asserted responsibility for the Taba bombings. The other was a previously unknown group that called itself the Mujaheddin of Egypt, which faxed its assertion of responsibility to newspapers.
For years, Egypt wrestled with a resilient insurgency by Islamic militants centered in the country's poorer and long-neglected south. By the late 1990s, Egyptian officials said they had defeated the movement, although human rights groups complained of house demolitions, arbitrary arrests and torture. Thousands remain in jail from those years.
Dozens were detained after Saturday's bombings, but Serafi said they had all been released. He said there have been no arrests in Arish. The Associated Press, quoting a police official there, said DNA samples were taken from the parents of a fugitive from the Taba bombings who police suspect may have been one of those involved in Saturday's attack. Serafi said investigators had already taken DNA samples from remains left at the bomb sites.
"That's the main direction of the investigation," he said of the investigation in Arish.
Hospital officials had put the toll in Saturday's bombings at 88, most of them Egyptian. The Tourism Ministry revised that figure Sunday. Gen. Shukri Gaweesh, a ministry official, said 64 people were killed, including seven foreigners, 26 Egyptians and others who have yet to be identified. The health minister, however, said on Sunday that 63 people had died in the blasts. Doctors at Sharm el-Sheikh hospital said 114 people were wounded. Six Egyptians were still missing, Gaweesh said.
One of those killed has been identified as an American citizen, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo told the Associated Press.
The State Department on Sunday urged Americans to "exercise caution" when traveling in Egypt, and to avoid travel to the southern Sinai Peninsula or frequenting crowded tourist destinations in Cairo.
In a show of revulsion at the attacks, hotel managers in Sharm el-Sheikh helped organize a protest Sunday evening that drew hundreds of hotel employees, tourism industry workers, foreign tourists and city residents. In English and Arabic, signs read, "We are against terrorism." Over an hour's time, the crowd grew, passing before the ruins of the Ghazala Gardens. "There is no god but God, terrorism is the enemy of God," some chanted. Others shouted, "Terrorism, you coward, Egypt will return to the way it was."
Halfway through the protest, some demonstrators lit small white candles along the sidewalk in front of the Ghazala, now shrouded in a two-story white tarp that blocks the view from the street. Others set down bouquets of flowers.
The mood in the rest of Sharm el-Sheikh, though, was more subdued, as residents struggled to make sense of a calamity that cut through the city's ebullience like a scythe. Hundreds of tourists have already left, and many predicted it would take months, if not years, for the city to revive. Many workers said they planned to depart soon for their homes in Cairo and other parts of Egypt.
"You can see for yourself what it looks like," said Gamil Gidawi, a 21-year-old sitting at the Cocktail Cafe, just yards from the crater left by the first bombing. He waved his hand to the street beside him. "Everything has collapsed."
The mood in the cafe was edgy. When someone heard about an explosive device that was detonated Sunday as a man carried it several miles from a tourist bazaar in Cairo, questions were shouted out.
"Where did it happen?" one customer yelled. "When?" another asked. "Turn on al-Jazeera" television, another instructed.
Amr Mohammed, 20, who worked at a tourist bazaar in Naama Bay, grimaced. The bombings had started another era, he felt, and he expressed fear for both his city and his livelihood.
"What happened here is reality now," said Mohammed, who arrived in the resort when he was 15 and described himself as being raised here. "The city has lost its reputation. It was once the safest city in the world. Now it's no longer."
Special correspondent Nagwa Hassaan in Sharm el-Sheikh and staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.