By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 2, 2005
ARISH, Egypt -- Dozens of big, green prisoner-transport vans lined the highway, rolling east from the Suez Canal into the desert dunes and crags of the Sinai Peninsula. In this land populated mostly by nomads and goats, police checkpoints dotted the roads.
The foray of troops and police forces into Sinai in September represented the Egyptian government's continuing response to the bombings of hotels, tourist camps, parking lots and marketplaces during the past year in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh, two resort towns on Sinai's Red Sea coast.
Egyptian authorities, in a reversal of their earlier assessment, say the car bomb attacks, though nine months apart, were the work of a single organization with roots in Sinai and in extremist Islamic ideology -- but with no connections to worldwide terrorist networks. The so-far nameless group, the Egyptians say, combines lawless Bedouin bands and dedicated Muslim rebels from within Egypt. The findings, if accurate, suggest that the bombings represent a worrisome revival of homegrown political violence aimed at civilians, which has a long history in Egypt.
Officials say their investigation turned up no evidence of training in Afghanistan or Pakistan, no recruiting or logistics work in Muslim communities in Europe, no outside financing and no direct ties to al Qaeda or its leader, Osama bin Laden.
"The training was in Sinai, the vehicles used were stolen in Sinai, and the technology used is available in Sinai mines. We have not found any foreign involvement," said Gen. Ahmad Omar, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Ministry officials said that all the names of known suspects were relayed to foreign intelligence allies and Interpol and that none showed up on anyone's lists.
Yet the bombings, which together killed more than 100 Egyptians and foreigners, shared key characteristics of al Qaeda actions. They hit high-profile targets that are important to the economy. The dates of the attacks contained political symbolism -- the bombings in Taba occurred on Oct. 6, the anniversary of Egypt's 1973 war with Israel, while those in Sharm el-Sheikh came on July 23, the date the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser 53 years ago. The bombers were able to hatch plans freely in north and central Sinai, a remote and largely ignored section of the country.
"People speak of al Qaeda when they should be speaking of an al Qaeda model," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islam for the government-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
The conclusion that the bombings were rooted in Sinai would seem to make things easier for the authorities, but Egypt's long history indicates otherwise. From the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's prototypical radical Islamic group, in the 1920s, violent groups have emerged seemingly out of nowhere. After two decades of intense crackdowns on radical Muslim groups, the emergence of a violent group in Sinai was a surprise, officials say. "It's extremely difficult to monitor a mountainous area. We need to develop control of the security situation," Omar said.
Next door, Israel has been closely monitoring the situation. The stakes for the Israelis are high: After the withdrawal of Israel's troops from the Gaza Strip, Egypt and the Palestinians are in charge of policing the border with the Palestinian enclave.
In Israel, senior military intelligence officials say they have no reason to dispute the Egyptian theory that Bedouin tribesmen in Sinai carried out the bombings. But they also say the attacks might have been planned or assisted by foreign organizations, such as al Qaeda.
Israeli officials say the complexity of each operation -- involving multiple, almost simultaneous explosions -- points to possible foreign assistance. Israeli military intelligence officers say the cars used in the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing were rigged with explosives in Arish, then taken overland through the desert to the attack site rather than over well-monitored roads.
Two cells working within the same "terrorist infrastructure" carried out the bombings, according to senior Israeli military intelligence officers working with Egyptian officials on the investigation. Israeli officials say the Sharm el-Sheikh bombers learned from mistakes made at Taba: Chassis numbers on the cars used in Sharm el-Sheikh were removed; such numbers were used to trace the owner of the truck involved in the Taba Hilton bombing, leading to a number of arrests.
The Israelis also said a senior leader of the bombers, Khaled Musaid, who was killed Wednesday, was an Egyptian from the city of Ismailiya, not a Sinai Bedouin, suggesting he might have operated on behalf of other Egyptian groups or a foreign organization.
North Sinai is notable for its long, golden stretches of Mediterranean beach, rugged interior and popular resentment toward the central government. Smugglers ferry drugs, weapons and prostitutes to and from the Israeli border. Resentment over underdevelopment and recent security crackdowns runs deep, as evidenced by complaints about the Egyptian leadership's interference in local affairs and accusations that it disdains the population.
"There is no doubt that the sons of Sinai are angry with Cairo," said Ashraf Ayoub, a member of the Committee to Protect North Sinai, a nongovernmental organization that has mounted demonstrations against Egypt's relations with Israel and the U.S. war in Iraq. "Egypt doesn't consider us part of the nation."
"We are angry, angry, angry -- angry about Palestine, angry about Iraq and angry about the Egyptian dictatorship," said Khaled Arafat, a local political activist.
Sinai was under Israeli occupation for 15 years after the 1967 Middle East war, and Egyptian officials have accused the peninsula's Bedouins, thousands of whom live in and roam the hardscrabble interior, of excessive accommodation to the invaders. "Police from Egypt have always been suspicious of north Sinai and, in turn, the people are suspicious of them. Loyalty to the state is low," said Bashir Abdel Fattah, a historian and expert on Sinai society. "The question is how to avoid war in the Sinai. But the crackdown only makes people more resentful."
In the Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh plots, the Interior Ministry says, Sinai Bedouins provided hard-core Egyptian Islamic militants with explosives available from quarries in the area, as well as with weapons and even land mines left over from the '67 war. At Halal Mountain, Egyptian officials identified a tribal leader named Salem Shonoubi as the prime protector of the Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh suspects. Recently, a mine blew up a vehicle carrying troops in pursuit of suspects and their supporters and killed one police officer and an informer. Explosives of the type used in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh also killed a pair of soldiers in a roadside blast near Halal. The Israelis say Shonoubi was a key planner of the attacks.
Egyptian police used massive roundups to net a few key suspects, a typical crackdown tactic in Egypt. They put women in detention in hopes of luring husbands to give themselves up. Several detainees told Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group, that they were tortured during interrogation. As recently as two weeks ago, male members of several families were rounded up. Some were released; some kept in jail. A siege of Halal Mountain began in late August and is still in place. Tanks were sent to the area.
Four Taba suspects died carrying out the bombings, which targeted Israeli tourists. Two surviving suspects who have already been arraigned lived in Arish: Mohammed Gaez, an appliance dealer who is suspected of fashioning timers for the bombs, and Mohammed Rabaa, a metalworker who allegedly fitted the explosives onto vehicles.
Lawyers for Gaez and Rabaa said the two, if they produced anything for the Taba bombers, were unaware of the plot. "Making timers and metal containers was their business. Whatever they did, they did for money," said Ahmad Saif, a lawyer for the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a human rights organization.
Surviving suspects in the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks are to go to court soon, Omar said. Three others, who died in the attacks, were identified as known fugitives from roundups after the Taba killings. They lived in Rafah, a town that borders the Gaza Strip in north Sinai.
The Interior Ministry says the bombers are influenced by Salafism, a militant, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that is related to the Wahhabi Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Two dead suspects in the Taba bombings, Soliman Flayfil and his brother, Mohammed Saleh Flayfil, had turned to radical Islam. They were ejected from their Bedouin tribe for criticizing their father's religious observances as loose, Arish residents say. Soliman died in one of the Taba blasts; Mohammed was killed in a shootout with police last month in the Sinai mountains.
After the Taba attack, the government concluded that it was a local plot focused entirely on Israeli tourists -- and the beginning and end of the extremist threat in Sinai. But the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing, and the discovery of Taba suspects among the dead there, destroyed the theory.
"The authorities wanted to wrap up Taba quickly, but they hadn't really uncovered all the details. When the fugitives felt the authorities had relaxed a little, they struck again," said Mohammed Salah, a correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper and a longtime observer of Islamic groups in Egypt.
Omar, however, insisted that the group behind the bombings had been unable to achieve its goals. "They tried to destabilize Egypt by hitting the interests of the political regime," he said, noting that tourism had not dried up as it had after an attack on tourists at Luxor in 1997. "There wasn't a huge echo this time. They failed."
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.