Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Last Thursday’s horrendous terrorist attacks on tourist facilities in the Egyptian Sinai resort at Taba has targeted three distinctive targets. The first target, of course, are the innocent dead and wounded — mostly Israelis and a handful of Europeans looking for some peace, and Egyptians who worked in this hitherto parcel of land described by many as a little piece of paradise in an otherwise turbulent neighborhood.

Gaza, where the intifada is now in its fourth year, and where in just the last few weeks Palestinian militants engaged in the most violent clashes with Israeli troops in more than two years, is only about 200 miles away — a mere hour or so by air.

The attacks claimed the lives of more than 34 people and injured hundreds more, frightening away thousands of Israelis in a modern exodus back across the border into Israel. According to Egyptian sources, between 12,000 and 15,000 Israelis vacationed in Taba.

The explosions are the first of their kind in Taba since the resort near the southern tip of Israel was returned to Egyptian sovereignty under the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter and signed by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Islamist militants later assassinated Sadat for signing the accords.

The Taba attacks, believed the work of al Qaeda, claimed a second victim — the Egyptian tourism industry, a major source of badly needed foreign currency for Egypt’s cash-strapped economy. Taba’s tourism provided hundreds of jobs in a country where unemployment runs at 9.9 percent, according the Central Intelligence Agency.

This is not the first time the Egyptian tourist industry has been hard hit by terrorism. In an attack against Western tourists at the ancient temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, on Nov. 17, 1997, six Islamist militants purported to belong to the Gamaat Islamiya slaughtered 58 victims. According to Egyptian police reports, some of the tourists were shot with automatic weapons while others were knifed to death or had their throats slit. That incident was condemned by Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Similarly, a Hamas spokesman denied his group’s involvement in the Taba raid, despite earlier threats from a Hamas spokesman in Damascus warning the Palestinian Islamist group would take the fight beyond the occupied territories in retaliation to Israel’s targeting of top Hamas militants.

Notwithstanding the ongoing clashes in Gaza, Israeli officials believe the Taba attacks were carried out by al Qaeda rather than one of the Palestinian groups — Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Indeed, the simultaneous assaults on three separate locations have the distinct hallmark of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist franchise and patterns similar to the attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam in August 1998 and against United States on September 11, 2001.

Intelligence analysts agree the Taba attacks follow that pattern. A car filled with explosives drove into the five-star Taba Hilton Hotel where it exploded, presumably detonated by a suicide bomber, ripping parts of the building away. One report spoke of nearby trees littered with the bodies of charred birds. Moments later mayhem struck anew as two other cars bombs exploded near beach camps frequented by Israelis.

Despite the quick finger-pointing at al Qaeda, the Taba attacks could be the work of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the outlawed group that merged with al Qaeda a few years ago, with its leader Ayman al-Zawahri becoming bin Laden’s deputy. Some believe al-Zawahri is the real brains behind al Qaeda.

Egyptian authorities blamed “suspicious elements seeking to exploit the deterioration in the Palestinian territories.” A security source told United Press International that investigations into the bombings were focusing on two leads, including possible involvement of Palestinian militants. A more likely possibility is that of Muslim extremists.

It is unlikely Hamas, which strives to maintain cordial relations with Arab countries — and particularly with Egypt — would have carried out the Taba attacks. Investigators say they are also concentrating on the possibility dormant terrorist cells linked to al Qaeda could have been involved. Egyptian police are interrogating Arab Bedouins who live in the Sinai Peninsula and might have been recruited by al Qaeda or one of its franchises.

Two hitherto unknown groups claimed responsibility for the hit on Taba. “The Brigades of Islamic Unity” said in a statement published on an Islamic Web Site that its members carried out the attacks code-named “Invasion Sinai.” The organization claimed to have links with al Qaeda. The attacks were also claimed by the International Islamic Gamaa’ (Grouping).

The attacks were not a complete surprise but were somewhat anticipated. About a month ago, Israeli intelligence warned its citizens to avoid traveling to Egypt. One Israeli termed “irresponsible” those who vacationed in Egypt despite Israeli warnings of the “concrete threats to tourists in the Sinai.”

But regardless who is responsible for the deadly raids, the Taba attacks have also claimed a third victim — hope that Arabs and Israelis could coexist in just one small corner of the Middle East.

The aim of the bombings goes beyond killing tourists. “The target was Israelis as well as Israel-Egypt ties,” wrote Zvi Barel, a correspondent for Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper.

Optimism that an oasis of serenity can survive amidst the turmoil of the Middle East where people, regardless of their nationality, religion or ethnicity could live and work in peace, momentarily escaping the area’s tension and violence, evaporated in the murderous blasts of last Thursday’s multiple car bombings.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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