Sinai Bombings Mark Latest in Pattern of Symbolic Attacks in Egypt

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 17

Last week’s deadly explosions at a popular restaurant, café and supermarket frequented by tourists in the Egyptian city of Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula appear to fit the pattern of terrorist attacks targeting Cairo’s lucrative tourism infrastructure. As a critical source of income for the country’s fledgling economy, radical Islamists have often targeted Egypt’s tourist industry in an effort to sow domestic unrest and to undermine the Hosni Mubarak regime.

As of now, no individual or organization has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which killed over 20 and injured hundreds more. Egyptian officials are convinced that all of the attacks are linked to the previous strikes in Sinai beginning with the 2004 bombings at Taba (al-Ahram, April 27). Cairo blames a host of obscure groups, including Tawhid w’al-Jihad (Monotheism and Struggle), the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Egypt’s Mujahideen, among others, of carrying out the ongoing terror campaign in the Sinai. As a result, thousands of residents of Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt remain imprisoned following heavy-handed crackdowns targeting these alleged groups and their supporters. Egyptian authorities, however, have provided little evidence indicating progress in apprehending the perpetrators, which raises another series of questions.

The Dahab attacks came less then a week following Cairo’s claim of having dismantled yet another obscure terrorist organization called al-Ta’efa al-Mansoura (the Victorious Sect). This group was reported to be planning a series of attacks against tourist sites and energy infrastructure, as well as the assassinations of key Muslim and Christian clerics (al-Jazeera, April 19; Terrorism Focus, April 25).

Cairo has not provided credible evidence linking the group to the explosions in Dahab or previous attacks. In fact, many observers believe that the regime’s targeting of the group was part of a larger strategy meant to help justify the recent extension of the controversial Emergency Law and the implementation of more repressive measures aimed at stifling political opposition, especially the banned al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and others, in the name of national security (al-Jazeera, April 30).

It is also possible that the Dahab attacks are part of a growing and more complex trend rooted in domestic unrest stemming from radicalized elements within the Bedouin population that resides in the region. The Bedouins of the Sinai Peninsula are underserved and largely marginalized from the rest of Egyptian society and have reaped little benefit from the region’s tourist industry over the years. Likewise, the Egyptian authorities hold little sway there compared to the rest of the country, especially in the most remote areas. Despite the robust allocation of security resources due to the region’s importance as a tourist magnet, the lack of cooperation between the security services and the local Bedouin population makes Sinai harder to police. It is worth noting that the Sinai Peninsula was not a terrorist target before 2004. It has since been the site of three major attacks and sporadic unrest over the last 18 months.

Given this background, it cannot be ruled out that radicalized elements within the Bedouin community have established links with groups such as al-Qaeda. The scope and sophistication of the Dahab strikes fit the mold of past al-Qaeda attacks, especially the reliance on simultaneous strikes (as-Sharq al-Awsat, April 29). Another possibility, however, is that an indigenous radical element based in Sinai is waging its own war against Cairo by targeting Egyptian civilians and foreigners to embarrass the regime. Some Egyptian analysts believe that local expertise and support is required to successfully navigate the difficult terrain and series of armed checkpoints in place throughout the region. This may add another clue as to who may have perpetrated the attacks (al-Ahram, April 27).

The latest bombings were followed by twin suicide attacks targeting members of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission near the MFO base in the town of al-Gura, approximately 15 miles west of Gaza. The MFO was established following the 1979 Camp David Accords. The first attacker ran in front of a passing vehicle carrying Egyptian police and MFO officers. The second attacker rode a bicycle and detonated a bomb he was carrying after Egyptian police rushed to the scene following the initial attack. In both instances, only the bombers were killed ( Significantly, two MFO officers were wounded in a similar series of follow-up suicide strikes near al-Gura just days after the deadly attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh in August 2005.

The timing of the Dahab attacks follows what has become the Egyptian radical’s penchant for striking on or around national holidays or other symbolic dates. The latest attack occurred during the Ancient Pharonic holiday known as Shem al-Nassim, which celebrates the onset of spring in the Pharonic Calendar, and a day before Sinai Liberation Day, which marks the final withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula following the 1979 peace agreement. Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians also celebrated Easter on April 23.

The deadly attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh against hotels and tourist sites on July 23, 2005 coincided with the Free Officer’s Coup of 1952 that ousted the Egyptian monarchy from power. The October 7, 2004 attacks in Taba that targeted Israeli tourists staying at the Hilton Hotel and Ras al-Shaitan campgrounds occurred during the period marking the October 1973 War, also referred to as the Ramadan War by Arabs or Yom Kippur War by Israelis. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was also assassinated by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Gama’a al-Islamiyya on October 6, 1981 while attending an annual military parade in Cairo commemorating the October 1973 War.