Two suicide bombers tried to attack international peacekeepers and police in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, blowing themselves up just two days after nearly simultaneous bombings killed at least 21 people at the Sinai beach resort of Dahab.
Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said all the blasts this week were linked to terror attacks at two other Sinai resorts last year and in 2004.
“The information we have indicates that (the perpetrators) are Sinai Bedouin, and the latest operations are linked to the previous attacks,” el-Adly told state television, referring to the deadly bombings in Sharm el-Sheik last July and Taba in October 2004.
Eager to avoid damage to Sinai’s vital tourist trade by linking al-Qaida to the bombings, Egyptian authorities have blamed Bedouin tribesmen for past attacks. But some outside intelligence officials say groups linked to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network are the more likely suspects.
Fertile ground for extremism
The largely impoverished peninsula, a barren expanse where Bedouin eke out a meager existence and tourists luxuriate in seaside hotels, has become fertile ground for extremists.
Multinational Force and Observer peacekeepers, who are helping to monitor the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace deal, have been struck twice in less than a year — both times after larger and bloodier attacks on Sinai resorts.
Wednesday’s attacks, near the main peacekeeper base about three miles south of the Rafah border crossing to the Gaza Strip, were unsophisticated. One bomber was riding a bicycle and only the militants died.
The death and destruction were far greater Monday, when three bombs shattered a peaceful holiday weekend, killing 21 people in the Dahab resort 190 miles to the south.
The Taba attack came a day after the holiday commemorating the start of Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel and the Sharm el-Sheik assault took place on the day marking Egypt’s 1952 revolution.
Asked why the attackers chose national holidays, el-Adly said: “This requires further thought. Do these people have a certain vision? Or do they think the police will be more relaxed on a holiday — which is not true.”
Authorities sift clues
Authorities have rounded up dozens of suspects and are studying the dismembered remains of three men to learn if they were suicide bombers in the Dahab attacks. Three people were released after questioning Wednesday.
Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, flew to Yemen on Wednesday for talks on the Dahab bombings, according to intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. They said Egypt wanted to know if al-Qaida activists who escaped from a prison in Yemen might be connected to Sinai terrorist cells.
While the interior minister linked this week’s attacks with the earlier bombings and blamed Bedouins, terrorism expert Steven Emerson offered a different scenario.
“It’s clear these people are from some al-Qaida derivative group,” Emerson said by telephone from Washington. “The Egyptians have a real problem in the Sinai where these jihadists are able to move in with impunity and collaborate with the local Bedouin. The bombers couldn’t operate in the Sinai without the support of the Bedouin.”
Tourism in the crosshairs?
Emerson said he thinks the attackers’ goal is destroying Egypt’s tourism industry, which brought in $6.4 billion last year, and thereby undermining President Hosni Mubarak, whose quarter-century in power has been marked by harsh crackdowns on militant groups.
The Sinai is about the size of West Virginia and is home to the mountain where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments. Its long coast, washed by the warm waters of the Red Sea, is being rapidly developed for tourists.
But Sinai residents, mainly nomadic Bedouin, complain they are poorly served by the government.
After 34 people died in bomb attacks on the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shatan in October 2004, Egyptian security forces rounded up thousands of people — including Bedouin women. In the Bedouin culture, the detention of women by a male police force is a violation of honor that must be avenged.
The arrests prompted New York-based Human Rights Watch to criticize Egypt, maintaining that as many as 2,400 people remained in custody as of last February. It said some prisoners were tortured.
Similar roundups occurred after suicide bombings in Sharm el-Sheik killed 64 people last July. Some analysts believe the heavy-handed tactics have only made residents more receptive to militants.
“I think Egyptian authorities have not yet gotten the measure of the Sinai problem,” said Hugh Roberts, the Cairo director of the North Africa project at the International Crisis Group.
In the first attack Wednesday, a man driving a pickup truck intercepted a peacekeeper SUV, forced it to stop and then jumped out of the truck and flung himself at the vehicle, blowing himself up.
Bomber on a bike
About 35 minutes later, Egyptian police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Zamlout was riding in a car when a suicide bomber riding a bicycle struck the vehicle.
“I heard the man yelling ’Allahu Akbar!’ (God is great) and then a big explosion hit our car,” al-Zamlout said, his blue uniform splattered with the bomber’s blood.
At about the same time, Palestinian police foiled an attempt by militants to blow up the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza. Three officers and two militants were wounded in an exchange of fire, and police found hundreds of pounds of explosives in the car.
Israel then shut the crossing, as it has done repeatedly this year because of security concerns, causing economic hardship in Gaza.
The attack on the Sinai peacekeepers was the second in less than a year. In August, a crude roadside bomb blasted a vehicle belonging to the force, slightly wounding two Canadians.
The 1,800 peacekeepers monitor the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace deal, which led to Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai. Ten countries have troops in the force — the United States, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Fiji, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Uruguay. Norway provides three officers.