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Leader of singing groupturned to terror

Cairo suicide bomber Ehab Yousri Yassin underwent a drastic change a few years ago, mingling with Islamic extremists, talking only about religion and forcing his sisters to wear head-to-toe veils.
Ehab Yousri Yassin 
Ehab Yousri Yassin  Ho / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Once the cheerful leader of a school singing group, Ehab Yousri Yassin underwent a drastic change a few years ago, mingling with Islamic extremists, talking only about religion and forcing his sisters to wear head-to-toe veils.

Residents of this impoverished city on Cairo’s northern outskirts provided insights into the 24-year-old’s life Sunday, a day after security officials said he blew himself up while jumping from a bridge in central Cairo during a police chase.

The explosion killed Yassin — suspected of involvement in an April 7 suicide bombing in a crowded Cairo bazaar — and injured seven others, including four foreigners.

Less than two hours later, police claim, one of Yassin’s sisters and his fiancee, enraged by his death, opened fire on a tourist bus carrying Austrians before killing themselves. The tourists escaped injury, but two Egyptians in the area were wounded.

Police cracked down hard, arresting 200 people in massive security sweeps Saturday and Sunday in two areas just north of Cairo, including the neighborhood in Shubra el-Kheima where Yassin and his sisters grew up.

Yassin’s friends and relatives were held for questioning in Saturday’s violence and suspected connections to local terror networks.

Police played down the attacks as the work of amateurish militants, but political opposition groups and security experts blamed Egypt’s controversial decades-old emergency laws, saying they created an oppressive environment that breeds violence and extremists like Yassin.

Yassin grew up in the crowded streets of Ezbet al-Gabalawi, a Shubra el-Kheima district. People said he was a polite and happy leader of a school singing group before adopting hard-line Islamic views about four years ago.

‘Distance themselves’
“He forced his sisters to wear the Islamic veil and had gone too far into Islamic extremism,” said one of Yassin’s friends, Tamer Sayyed. “Yassin started to quarrel with his father and criticize others for subjects they used to talk about, instead of speaking about Islam. That made his friends decide to distance themselves from him.”

Muna Rashad, a pharmacist who worked for 16 years close to the apartment building in which Yassin’s family lived, said her initial surprise at hearing the news faded when she recalled how Yassin and his sisters had changed.

“(Yassin) was good, smiling and behaved well when he used to come to buy medicine and talk to me, but he changed later when he used to mingle with Islamic fundamentalists coming to visit him from the other neighborhood,” Rashad said.

Asked why Yassin turned to extremism, Rashad blamed the death of his mother a few years ago and the city’s poverty.

“Poverty kills the brain,” she added.

Yassin and fugitives Ashraf Saeed Youssef, 27, and Gamal Ahmed Abdel Aal, 35, were sought for planning the April 7 suicide bombing that killed two French tourists and an American.

Police said they captured Youssef and Abdel Aal on Saturday before chasing Yassin onto a highway overpass, where he jumped off, detonating the bomb that injured seven people, including an Israeli couple, a Swedish man and his Italian girlfriend.

Some witnesses reported seeing a bomb or a bag being thrown from above before the explosion occurred.

Revenge shooting
Soon after, police said Yassin’s veil-wearing sister, Negat Yassin, and fiancee, Iman Ibrahim Khamis, shot at a bus carrying tourists near the historic Citadel site in retaliation for Yassin’s death.

Police and the government-guided Al-Ahram newspaper had said the bus was carrying Israeli tourists, but Austrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Silvia Neureiter confirmed Sunday that 44 Austrians were on board.

Yassin’s sister then shot and fatally wounded her companion before killing herself, police said.

At the shooting scene, bystanders said police killed at least one of the armed women, conflicting with accounts they committed suicide. Many were shocked by the involvement of women, who are not known to have carried out past attacks in Egypt.

Two militant groups claimed responsibility — the Mujahedeen of Egypt and the al-Qaida influenced Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Neither claim’s authenticity could be verified.

In response to the attacks, the U.S. Embassy issued a warning on its Web site Sunday advising American citizens “to avoid tourist areas in Cairo until the threat environment becomes clearer.”

Authorities said they do not regard the spike in terror attacks as a return to the violence that plagued Egypt during the 1990s. Saturday’s drama, they said, resulted from the government crackdown on a small militant cell it says carried out the April 7 attack.

But the opposition Al-Ghad Party said the violence was the result of the “environment of oppression and depression,” a reference to the emergency laws the country has lived under since 1981. Opposition groups are demanding President Hosni Mubarak revoke the laws, which he claims are in place to fight terrorism.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the attacks but said they were a “reaction to the injustice” Egyptians are suffering under a heavy-handed government empowered by emergency laws.

Egyptian security experts urged the government to dispose of its emergency laws and draft specific anti-terrorism measures.

“The core of the problem (prompting the violence) is political, therefore, keeping the emergency law active for security reasons yields negative results on the political scale,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups.