Security officials fear new threat from abroad

Many of the Israeli tourists who regularly crossed the border to take holidays in Taba considered the secluded Sinai resort to be safer than their own country, which has entered the fifth year of the Al-Aqsa intifada with little hope of peace. The Egyptians who rely on the local hotel industry for a living grudgingly welcomed their presence, and their cash. On 7 October, three separate bomb blasts, at the Hilton hotel in Taba and two separate camps in Ras el-Shitan, to the south, claimed the lives of 34 of those tourists and the livelihoods of thousands of Egyptian workers. Within hours, some 12,000 Israeli holidaymakers had crossed the border, and the Egyptian government and its people were left wondering whether their own fragile peace, and their hopes for a tourism-led economic recovery, were now at an end.

The bombings are the first major attacks on tourists since the Luxor massacre in 1997, which prompted an exceptionally harsh crackdown on religious extremists – and political dissidents – by the Egyptian authorities. It was during this period that a number of fundamentalists now associated with Al-Qaeda followed the example of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman el-Zawahri and fled the country. Back at home, popular support for the more radical groups such as Islamic Jihad withered, while its cousin Gamaat el-Islamiya, which had claimed responsibility for the Luxor killings, announced an unconditional ceasefire in March 1999. Neither group has claimed responsibility for the Sinai bombings, and indeed little suspicion points their way. Palestinian groups, similarly, have little wish to alienate Cairo as the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza approaches a bloody climax. As the interrogation of local Bedouin on 10 October confirmed, the people who carried out the attacks were Egyptian, but local security officials have indicated the orders probably came from abroad.

The Egyptian authorities have also been quick to point out the distinctions between the Sinai attacks and the Luxor massacre. ‘Look at the timing,’ said the new Tourism Minister. ‘Look at the choice of place.’ Few dispute that the Israeli tourists, who were vacationing during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, were the intended victims. The insurgency of the 1990s, by contrast, was indiscriminate in its choice of foreign targets. However, there will be concerns that the bombings are the opening salvo in a broader terrorist campaign on Arab soil. On 1 October, a tape purportedly issued by Zawahri himself called for attacks on US, UK and other coalition countries’ interests worldwide.