Hugh Roberts: Single group appears to be targeting Sinai's resorts

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The Independent Online

The latest bombing in Egypt's Sinai is as likely to add to the mystery surrounding bombings in Egypt as to resolve it.

Monday's attack in Dahab resembled those at Sharm el-Sheikh last July, and at Taba in October 2004. That the same organisation was responsible for all three is suggested by the targets (resorts on Sinai's east coast) and techniques (multiple bomb attacks on civilians without warning), and the fact that they have all occurred on or near important Egyptian anniversaries: the annual celebration of the 1973 war (Taba), the anniversary of the 1952 revolution (Sharm el-Sheikh) and now on the eve of Sinai Liberation Day.

Before 2004, Sinai had seemed entirely insulated from jihadi violence throughout the insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s which climaxed with the massacre at Luxor in November 1997.

Long before the Taba attack, the main jihadi movements, the Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) and Tanzim al-Jihad (the Jihad Organisation) had ended their campaigns against the Egyptian state. The Gama'a had renounced its violent strategy, and members of the Jihad Organisation outside the country who had stayed in business had redeployed to al-Qa'ida's global jihad against the West.

None of the attempts to explain these attacks has really done so. Claims that the Sharm attacks were the work of previously unheard of movements, the so-called Abdallah Azzam Brigades or the Holy Warriors of Egypt, were generally discounted by Egyptian experts. The official claim that the Taba bombings were the work of an isolated Palestinian, Iyad Said Saleh, who had won over a small network of locals to his Islamist sympathies,failed to explain why the security services felt it necessary to arrest several thousand Sinai residents at the time and keep many of them in custody to this day, or how this network was able to carry off the Sharm (and now Dahab) attacks after Saleh's death.

The authorities' reluctance to accept that al- Qa'ida may have been behind these events is understandable given the effect this admission could have on the tourist trade. But the comparative sophistication of the terrorist organisation and its ability to survive security crackdowns is hard to square with the notion that disgruntled locals are behind these incidents.

However, there is no doubt that these repeated attacks are symptomatic of two factors specific to Sinai.

The first is the fact that, under the 1979 Camp David Agreement which secured the return of the peninsular to Egypt, the Egyptian state has less than full sovereignty over Sinaiand its security forces are accordingly constrained in their attempts to control it or pursue terrorists, especially on the eastern side of the peninsula. The second is that the region's population remains to be properly integrated into the Egyptian nation.

The problem is that, at present, the Egyptian state is badly placed to address either of these factors which lie under Sinai's current propensity to generate, or to host, the latest brand of terrorism to plague the country.

Hugh Roberts is North Africa director for the International Crisis Group