The bus carrying South Korean tourists from Egypt to Israel was rigged as a time bomb for Eilat, debkafile’s counter-terror sources reveal. It blew up prematurely in Egyptian Sinai and killed three South Korean tourists – two men and a woman - and the Egyptian driver, Sunday, Feb. 16, shortly before the bus crossed the Taba terminal just north of Eilat. Fourteen tourists were injured.
An explosion in downtown Eilat a few minutes later would have magnified the death toll and afforded the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis embedded in Sinai its first terrorist hit in the heart of an Israeli town.
The timing mechanism was apparently faulty and detonated the bomb while the bus was still on the Egyptian side of the border.
Even then, the tragedy could have been averted had Egyptian security measures been in force on the tourist routes through Sinai. In an area ridden with terrorists, the bus should have been escorted by a police van with four armed officers. Before reaching the terminal, it should have been stopped and thoroughly searched by security officers with sniffer dogs trained to detect explosives.
Until now, debkafile’s military sources report, Israel relied on Egyptian security to monitor the tourist buses entering through the Taba crossing, and merely carried out routine checks of the visitors’ papers.
Following the bus attack, Israel will need to tighten security for Taba and nearby Eilat and carry out its own stringent inspections for visitors entering from Egypt.
South Korea issued a statement Monday voicing shock and outrage at the terrorist bombing of the bus and strongly condemning it as an act of terror. The victims were all members of a church group from the central South Korean county of Jincheon, who were on a 12-day trip through Turkey, Egypt and Israel.
Seoul issued a high-level travel warning for the Sinai region and the Gulf of Aqaba, and urged its nationals living elsewhere in Egypt to take extra precautions.
"We believe that terrorism can never be justified under any circumstances and such inhumane and unethical acts should be weeded out by all means," the foreign ministry said. UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon added his voice to the condemnation.
The Israel Airports Authority, which is responsible for border security, said the Taba crossing had been closed in the wake of the blast and Israeli trippers in Sinai urged to leave.
Immediately after the attack on the bus, debkafile reported Sunday on the inadequacies of the Egyptian-Israeli war on al Qaeda.:
The bombing of a tourist bus carrying 33 South Korean tourists in Sinai just 250 meters from the Taba crossing to Israel, killing at least 4 tourists and the Egyptian driver, represents a major failure of the joint war Egypt and Israel are waging against Al Qaeda and its partners-in-terror, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas. At least 14 South Korean tourists were injured, although some sources put the figure at 20.
The South Korean group, coming from St. Catherine’s monastery near Mount Sinai, was hit just before entering Israel for a 24-hour tour of the Holy Places.
Exactly how the attack was engineered is still unclear, debkafile’s counterterrorism sources report. According to one theory, the tourist bus was attacked in three stages:
1. An explosive device was planted inside the base on a timer – either when the visitors were out touring or at one of the rest stops between the monastery and Taba.
2. At the moment that the bomb was timed to detonate, the terrorists fired a rocket at the bus.
3. At the same moment, a bomb car rammed the right wall of the bus and exploded.
Given the clockwork precision of the three actions and the quantity of explosives expended, the low number of casualties is surprising.
The operation bore the signature of Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the al Qaeda-led Islamist coalition which has been carrying out terrorist and rocket attacks on both sides of the border, and whose membership includes a number of seasoned and highly trained terror operatives from Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They are fed a steady stream of intelligence by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures hiding in the Gaza Strip as well as locals of the Palestinian Hamas and the Jihad Islami.
They succeeded in breaking new ground in Sinai with their attack on a tourist target - and deal a body blow to a major Egyptian industry - only because key events caught the anti-terror forces wanting:
a) One of the four trials against deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi opened in Cairo Sunday morning, in which he was charged with espionage and conspiring to commit acts of terror.
This date should have been accompanied by an elevated terror alert not only in Egypt proper but in Sinai as well. The trial was adjourned to Feb. 23 when his lawyers walked out in protest against Morsi being confined in a soundproofed cage.
That date too could be a red-letter day for terror.
b) The fact that Egyptian-Israeli border forces went on high alert only after the bombing of the tourist bus – not before – points to lax foresight by both forces.
c) Despite intensive intelligence-sharing between Egypt and Israel in Sinai and the Gaza Strip, neither agency picked up on the plans in the making for the coming attack.
d) It is the declared policy of Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis to punish Israel for Egyptian assaults on its members and bases with rocket strikes on Eilat. The last such strike took place on Jan. 31. Israeli authorities have chosen to play these threats down, except for posting an Iron Dome anti-missile battery at Israel’s southernmost town.
e) The Sinai jihadists spotted the hole in this defensive screen. Iron Dome is set to intercept rockets aimed at Eilat, but not to gather intelligence outside its radius, such as Taba, just a few kilometers to the north. Intelligence there depended on other sources.
The fact is that Ansar Bayt Al-Magdis was able to rig a bomb to blow up just a few meters from the Taba terminal and the Israeli border bespeaks a large hole in IDF defenses.
f) Israel permitted the Egyptian army to deploy military units, tanks and assault helicopters in Sinai, a major concession in support of the war on terror. But those forces have failed to curb the operational capabilities of the terrorists who are making free of Sinai.
The whisper going around Israeli official and high military circles is that the government’s policy of relying on the Egyptian army to handle the Islamist terrorists has run aground. There are quiet calls for an urgent revision. It is time for Israel’s security and military chiefs to stop pretending that they can afford to turn their backs on the mounting menace posed by Al Qaeda groups closing in on its borders from south and north.