Last Thursday, Egypt suffered its first terrorist attack in seven years when a series of bombs exploded in the Sinai Red Sea resort towns of Taba, Ras al-Satan, and Nuweiba. So far, at least 32 are dead and 120 injured. Who did it, and why?
Several weeks before the attacks, the Israeli government issued warnings to the general public advising them against vacationing in Sinai during the coming month. Israeli security had four pieces of intelligence, three that pointed to Palestinian groups plotting attacks in Sinai, and a fourth suggesting an international organization was targeting the resorts. However, Egyptian and Israeli analysts now agree that the Palestinians are almost certainly not responsible. Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that Hamas has recently debated whether or not to extend its fight outside Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. The group’s so-called political wing has argued in favor of maintaining the status quo, while other factions want to strike Israeli and Jewish interests abroad. Why? Militant groups have to continue operations or risk losing prestige and funding. Since Israel’s security barrier and the targeted assassinations of Islamist leaders have made it very difficult to strike inside Israel, the groups may have no choice but to go outside if they wish to continue their war. So, although the Palestinian groups are probably not responsible for the Taba attacks, future operations outside Israel are not out of the question.
Most analysts now believe that the nature and scale of the attack—bombs detonated at three different sites, two of the explosions nearly simultaneous—indicate an al-Qaida-style operation carried out either by an Egyptian sleeper cell or by operatives who originated in Jordan or Saudi Arabia and enjoyed some local assistance. Dozens of Sinai Bedouins have been arrested, and other Egyptians may also be involved. It would hardly come as a surprise if Egypt’s security forces, like Saudi Arabia’s and Pakistan’s, have been infiltrated by jihadist organizations. After all, the country’s most famous episode of Islamist violence, the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, was carried out by rogue elements of the military who killed the “apostate” Muslim leader for making peace with the hated Jewish state.
The subsequent war that the Egyptian groups launched against the state throughout the 1980s and ‘90s featured many attacks on the tourism industry for ideological and practical reasons. The jihadists didn’t like infidels defiling Muslim * lands with gambling, alcohol, and prostitution. Most important, they believed that because tourism was Egypt’s primary source of hard currency, they could bring down the Mubarak regime by severely weakening the economy. However, the groups seriously underestimated the government’s tenacity: While attacks on tourists did devastate the economy, they had little effect on a regime with a capacity for violence far exceeding that of the jihadists. Worse, since roughly a quarter of all Egyptians depend on tourism for their income, the operations cost the jihadist groups the support of ordinary Egyptians. The jihadist war came to a halt—apparently temporarily—after the 1997 Luxor massacre when 58 tourists were butchered by a Gama’a Islameya faction.
It was then, as the French scholar Gilles Kepel explains in his new book The War for Muslim Minds, that some major Islamist figures decided it was fruitless to keep warring with infidel Muslim regimes like Egypt. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and now Osama Bin Laden’s No. 2, argued that jihadists should focus instead on the faraway enemy, the United States. Zawahiri recognized, as Kepel writes, that:
[J]ihad activists had failed to mobilize the masses in the effort to overthrow their corrupt rulers, the “nearby enemy.” To reverse the course of this decline, a radical change of strategy was necessary. The sheer audacity and magnitude of the massive blow struck against the United States was designed to galvanize undecided Muslims by convincing them that the Islamist militants were irresistibly powerful and that the United States, the arrogant protector of apostate regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, was abhorrently weak.
To be sure, attacks on tourism failed “to mobilize the masses,” but Kepel omits the chief reason why Zawahiri changed the point of attack: The Mubarak regime destroyed the group’s capacity to operate inside Egypt. Arrests, forced exile, collective punishment, torture, and murder made it impossible for either Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad or Gama’a Islameya to attack. They focused on the “abhorrently weak” United States because it was an easier target than the nearby enemy. The question now is why, after seven years, did the jihadist movement renew its war against Egypt with a strategy that they have already seen is a dead end?
It is hard to know whether the groups think Egypt is now a softer target. Certainly, the Sinai, which has attracted many Israeli tourists since it was handed back to Egypt in 1988 under the terms of the two countries’$2 1979 peace treaty, has always been lightly policed in comparison with the rest of Egypt’s tourist attractions. Maybe the jihadists have entered a particularly nihilistic phase in their history, pursuing violence for no other purpose than bloodshed and vengeance. Perhaps they are madder than before. But we can imagine what the world looks like to a jihadist today: The United States has invaded and occupied two Muslim countries, and it has dispatched special forces and drone airplanes throughout the Middle East and North Africa to kill jihadists. The Bush administration has asked Muslim states like Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to arrest and detain suspects and has demanded that many of those same regimes revise their entire educational systems and tone down the anti-American rhetoric that appears in schools, mosques, and the media. More generally, we have demanded that Islam itself change and modernize. Last, but hardly least, we have continued to support Israel.
Even if we were to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq tomorrow, all of the other initiatives listed above that we’ve pursued since Sept. 11—which the majority of Americans and even a few Europeans support—would lead some Muslims to think we are waging a very high-intensity military and propaganda campaign against Islam. It was bad enough in the past that the United States protected “apostate regimes,” but now, in the midst of open war, Egypt is allied with Islam’s No. 1 enemy. This perception is one reason a few Egyptian spokesmen are twisting themselves in knots by either claiming the attacks are “very related to what is going on in Gaza” or that Israel itself is responsible. Israel is a marginal issue here at best. The jihadists are settling scores with Mubarak, and somewhere Ayman al-Zawahiri is very pleased.
This week, John Kerry told the New York Times Magazine, ”I know Mubarak well enough to know what I think I could achieve in the messaging and in the press in Egypt.” Although he shows great optimism, to say the least, in believing that any American president could “message” the Arab press, Kerry seems to be suggesting that a more sensitive approach could bring the Egyptians around to our side. Of course Mubarak would prefer Kerryian diplomacy to having his arm twisted by the Bush administration: The former gives an Arab leader with a real talent for self-preservation an easy escape route while the latter makes him do what all Arab leaders hate to do—square off against Islamists. In fact, unlike Kerry, whose idea of a coalition seems to be limited to European partners, the jihadists recognize that Mubarak already is a U.S. ally in this war. That is why they are mad and why Egypt is more vulnerable than it has been in seven years.
While Bush and Kerry argue over which of them would make America safe, the jihadists themselves may have given us some valuable information. If—as Zawahiri’s concept of the nearby and faraway enemy holds—al-Qaida decided to target the United States because the Islamist movement had little success striking at Egypt, then it is important to consider why they have returned to a battleground where they were systematically decimated. If they have found that it was easier to attack fortress Egypt than the United States, this is a significant turnaround.
Correction, Oct. 22, 2004: This piece originally said that jihadists “didn’t like infidels defiling non-Muslim lands with gambling, alcohol, and prostitution,” rather than “didn’t like infidels defiling Muslim lands.” Return to the corrected sentence.