- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Europe and the Middle East are likely to experience a hot summer this year. And this is not in reference to the weather.

“We are heading into a tunnel in the area — in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Iran, in the Palestinian territories and in Israel — and especially in the area regarding Islam,” Michel Samaha, a former minister of Information who served in the government of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, told this reporter in a Beirut restaurant last week. “And the most frightening thing,” added Mr. Samaha, “is that I don’t see an exit to this tunnel.”

Samaha is not alone in holding pessimistic views on the future of the area, pessimism he blames on “the viruses of Iraq which have extended to other parts of the region.”

More than a handful of observers in Beirut will back up Mr. Samaha’s claim that unless the area’s political front dramatically changes, more trouble and violence will likely follow, not least in the “area regarding Islam” as Mr. Samaha put it. But as the U.S. policy is not about to change any time in the near future, the mood remains one of pessimism.

And, say numerous Middle East analysts, despite claims from President Bush “progress is being made,” that is hardly the feeling one gets on the ground in the Middle East.

Islamist terrorism is on the rise as never before. Last Saturday, terrorists struck in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, bombing hotels and beach resorts usually frequented by Western tourists. They killed nearly 88 people. This time, however, most of the dead were Egyptians. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The real aim is not to kill people but to hit Egypt where it hurts the most — in the economy — an already struggling sector of Egypt’s infrastructure.

Tourism is Egypt’s second leading source of revenue. Despite several past terrorist attacks on tourist facilities, visitors have kept coming, undeterred by threats of violence. Consider:

• In 1995, Egypt hosted 2.8 million tourists. Egypt reached record tourism levels, despite the Taba and Nuweiba bombings in September 2004. By 2004, more than 8 million tourists spent billions of dollars, providing jobs, directly or indirectly, for about 3 million Egyptians. This, in turn, provided food for about 15 million people.

The Middle East, of course, does not alone suffer the terrorism unleashed by extremists in the name of what they call a sacred cause. Let al Qaeda speak of their “sacred cause” to the families of the 88 victims of Sharm el Sheik, or of the 56 casualties of the London assault as they bury their loved ones. Tell it to the families of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, the Bali bombings or any of the other acts of violence.

Islamist violence now reaches beyond the Middle East, into Europe. After striking last year in Madrid, Spain, the terrorists have hit London twice within two weeks.

Two separate series of four well-coordinated attacks on the London public transportation system, occurring only 14 days apart, show the vulnerability of an open society. The predicament for democracies in the wake of continued terrorism is how to balance a free, open society while increasing security without treading on individuals’ rights.

The first London attacks on three Underground trains and one double-decker bus killed more than 56 people and injured about 700. The second set of copycat attacks, which British authorities said failed, nevertheless, came amid heightened and tightened security measures.

These latest attacks are nothing if not a slap in the face to Prime Minister Tony Blair, accompanied by the terrorists’ audacious message that “we can do it again, if we wish to.”

Some counterterrorism experts believe last week’s attacks were not meant to kill like the first ones, but rather to send a warning. The British prime minister had earlier announced his government would enact new security laws to combat Islamist groups in Britain and to restrict radical imams who have long preached sermons of hate in London mosques.

In any case, whether the second string of London bombs were duds or intended to wreak fear and panic but no casualties, the underlying message is still the same: The terrorists have demonstrated they can strike when and where they choose.

Both the London and the Sharm el Sheik attacks came as the tourist season was in full swing. If holidaymakers planned to ignore the first bombs and visit London, chances are they will most likely alter their travel plans now. The same is certain to happen in Sharm el Sheik and other Egyptian destinations.

Both Britain and Egypt — particularly Egypt — badly need the dollars, euros and yens tourists bring in every year. The absence of tourists as a result of terrorist acts will hurt the domestic economies. Thousands of jobs will be lost. The ripple effect will be horrendous. The terrorists hope deteriorating economies will in turn hurt governments as domestic matters worsen and people begin to turn against the nations’ leaders.

This is where the information war comes in. It must be fought with a vigor equal to the intelligence and military war.

The Egyptian government must make absolutely clear terrorists are to blame for frightening tourists away and for all the consequences of that.

It is particularly important that this message be made clear in the Middle East and in the Muslim world where sympathy exists for the Islamist extremists: Those who committed the acts of terror are responsible for the unemployment, the hardships and other negative effects of their acts.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.



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