- Associated Press - Sunday, January 23, 2011

CAIRO | Egypt’s top security official on Sunday accused an al Qaeda-inspired group in the Gaza Strip of being behind the New Year’s Day suicide bombing that killed 21 people outside a Coptic Christian church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

Interior Minister Habib al-Adly said conclusive evidence showed the shadowy Army of Islam in the Palestinian territory was behind the planning and execution of the attack, which sparked three days of Christian rioting in Cairo and several other cities. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Egypt in more than a decade.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the bombing, which added to years of strained relations between Egypt’s sizable Coptic minority and the country’s Muslims. The government, eager to keep the sectarian tension under control, almost immediately blamed foreign elements for the attack.

The Army of Islam dismissed Sunday’s accusations on an extremist website, and the Hamas militants who control Gaza and have themselves battled with the smaller group was also skeptical of the Egyptian claim.

Mr. al-Adly said the group is believed to have recruited Egyptians in the planning and execution of the attack, but that this could not conceal the role it played in the “callous and terrorist” act.

** FILE ** Firemen try to put out a vehicle blaze following a car bombing in front of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, early on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011. The car exploded in front of the church as worshippers emerged from a New Year's Mass in the Mediterranean port city, killing at least seven people, officials said. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** Firemen try to put out a vehicle blaze following ... more >

Security officials said at least five Egyptians have been detained in connection with the Alexandria bombing. They said the suspects have given investigators a full account of how they were contacted and eventually recruited by the Army of Islam. The officials, who gave no further details, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.

The Army of Islam is estimated to have several dozen operatives committed, like al Qaeda, to the ideas of a global jihad. The group seceded from the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees in 2005 and currently has no ties with that group.

In 2008, Hamas unleashed a deadly crackdown on it, storming its stronghold and killing 13 of its members and prompting it to since keep a low profile.

The Army of Islam is thought to have participated in the kidnappings of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit in 2006 and BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was later released.

Late last year, Israel killed three members of the group in separate air strikes, alleging the men had planned to attack Israeli and American targets in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

“The Army of Islam in the land of Ribat [Palestine] denies the allegation made by the Egyptian regime about our relation with the attack in the city of Alexandria,” it said in an Internet posting.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, voiced doubts and asked Cairo to provide evidence to back up its charge. “We call on the Egyptian brothers to provide evidence and information to the government in Gaza about these accusations. We deny the existence of al Qaeda in the Gaza Strip and we reaffirm that the Egyptian national security is our national security,” said Taher Nunu, Hamas government spokesman.

Suspicion for the Alexandria bombing had fallen almost immediately on some kind of al Qaeda-linked local organization after the terror group’s branch in Iraq vowed to attack Christians in Iraq and Egypt over the cases of two Egyptian Christian women who sought to convert to Islam. The women, who were married to priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church, were prohibited from divorcing their husbands and sought to convert as a way out.

The women have since been secluded by the Coptic Church, prompting Islamic hard-liners in Egypt to accuse the Church of imprisoning them and forcing them to renounce Islam. The Church denies the allegation.