Intensive investigations have led Egyptian security experts to conclude that the string of suicide bombings in the last week of April were the work of a large Egyptian-Palestinian-Bedouin al Qaeda terrorist network numbering some 200-300 active operatives.
(For comparison, the hard core of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq organization is about 700 strong)
This is one of the key five key conclusions, revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, as emerging from the probe of the string of coordinated terrorist attacks spread over 48 hours, which started on April 24 with the triple bombing that devastated the eastern Sinai paradise resort of Dahab.
While Egyptians officials admit 18 dead and 60 injured, the real figure is closer to 34 and 150.
Two days later, on April 26, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the entrance to the Multinational Observer Force at al Gura in northern Sinai. One waited on a motorbike for Egyptian security and aid personnel to arrive – and then detonated his device. There are no reliable figures on the number of casualties – possible 6 – 10 injured.
Synchronized with this assault, another al Qaeda gang struck at the opposite end of Sinai – Bilbit near Islaimiya on the western bank of the Suez Canal (see map).
Egyptian authorities have kept this incident under tight wraps too, possibly because the casualty figure was high.
These are the other findings with which Cairo’s investigation has come up:
1. The organization behind the attacks had its beginnings in 2002 or 2003. It sprang up spontaneously under the influence of the videotapes its members watched of speeches by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.
In mid-2004, the group had crystallized sufficiently to send messengers to contact al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, traveling via Jordan. They told Zarqawi the group was ready to place itself under his personal command. Since then, he has regularly relayed his orders to the Sinai-Egyptian network, together with fighting strength, arms and funds to support their operations.
A closely linked chain
2. Egyptian security experts have found the links connecting the attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda in three consecutive years: the Dahab assault and the attacks which preceded it: the October 7, 2004 bombings of Taba and the Nuweiba Red Sea Coast (35 dead, 150 injured) and the big suicide blasts at the hotels of Sharm el-Sheikh on the night of July 22, 2005 (88 killed, 300 injured).
3. Not content with hitting locations in eastern, southern and northern Sinai, the al Qaeda network has now cut across the Peninsula to the west; it has established operational cells at the mouth of a key world trading waterway, the lifeline of Egypt’s economy – the Gulf of Suez. Zarqawi is now able to exert a stranglehold on the world’s shipping, its oil tankers and warships. American naval vessels, frequent users of the he Suez Canal, must now consider themselves at risk.
4. A single command center controls the networks operating in Sinai and Egypt proper. The two parts of the organization are closely integrated. Movements of manpower, weapons and explosives crisscross Sinai, inland Egypt and the Suez Canal. They are carried aboard small boats and tunnels running under the canal bed
5. The largest concentration of al Qaeda cells in Sinai is bunched around Ismailiya, the main Suez Canal crossing point between Cairo and Sinai. The terror operatives have settled in among Egyptian farmers who have dried out parts of the sweet water marshes and grow field crops, irrigated by water channeled from the Nile, in the first stage of a national Egyptian project to make the desert bloom.
This cluster of cells is Zarqawi’s point of vantage for hitting the strategic military route running south of Ismailiya, which guards the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter terror sources describe two leads that surfaced from the Dahab attacks, as finally exposing Cairo’s blindness to the terrorist network evolving in the past two years.
One, after the attacks on Dahab and Bilbith, Egyptian investigators found the heads of five of the six suicide bombers who carried out the attacks. They identified them as belonging to the men wanted for the 2004 and 2005 bombings in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh.
Two, a window opened on the nest of double agents and moles buried among the tens of thousands of Sinai Bedouin and Palestinians employed as Egyptian informers. These informers see their main function as being to shield Zarqawi’s cells from discovery and keep hidden from Egyptian eyes the busy traffic of messages, weapons and targeting information pumped across Sinai by the Iraq-based al Qaeda leader.
Egypt‘s interior minister to be axed
According to our Cairo sources, President Hosni Mubarak is preparing to pin the blame for Egyptian intelligence’s failure to wake up to the terrorist underground burgeoning under their noses on Egyptian interior minister Habib Adali. This buttress of the Mubarak regime is in charge of the security of its heads and the war on radical Islamic elements in Egypt.
Last week, the president summarily moved intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman over to the task of eliminating al Qaeda cells in Sinai and the Suez region.
Our sources name the commander-in-chief of al Qaeda’s Egyptian network as Nasser Malakhi (picture), a 42-year old lawyer from El Arish in the north.
The controller of the Sinai cells and mastermind of the Dahab and El Arish attacks in April is Awad Tirawi, whose underground sobriquet is Salah. He took over at the end of 2005 from the former chief Salem Shanub, who was killed in battle with Egyptian security forces on Jebel Hilal. The price paid by the Egyptians was the loss of two generals.
All three of these network leaders are disciples of its founder, an El Arish dentist called Khaled Musayd. He too was killed in an ambush the Egyptians laid for gunrunners at Sheikh Zuwaid, northern Sinai, at the end of 2004.
The Egyptian investigators uncovered a network whose organization is both simple and effective.
It is split into dozens of well-compartmentalized cells. The cell chiefs know the names and whereabouts of its members, but not of each other. Liaison couriers, who are frequently changed around, keep them connected and advised of orders. This method of compartmenting information successfully impeded the probe of the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings.
The investigation has now discovered that they were the work of two separate cells, neither of which knew the other was on the same mission against the same target.
To throw off the scent, the al Qaeda masterminds staged a typical Bedouin wedding on the night of the attacks to which they invited Egyptian government and security high-ups. After the attacks, Egyptian security investigators found it hard to believe that their hosts at the wedding had been responsible for the massacre at the Red Sea resort.
The Egyptian investigation of the Dahab attack last month progressed much faster and was able to quickly reconstruct the ruse used by the suicide bombers to throw off suspicion.
They set out from one of their sanctuaries near St. Catherine’s monastery in South Sinai and traveled along Wadi Faran to Dahab. Along the way, they sold the candy and goodies with which they had loaded their trucks. At Egyptian security road blocks, they handed out baklawa and knafe pastry, beloved of Arabs, and joined the officers in cups of strong, sweet Bedouin tea. They said quite openly they were heading for Dahab and hoped for good sales among the tourists.
None of the Egyptian officials suspected that the dispensers of pastry were other than what they seemed.
After the Dahab attack, Egyptian security forces determined to flush out the al Qaeda lairs in the mountains and wadis of Sinai. Fierce battles have raged every since.
However, the deaths of three cell leaders in these engagements have proved counter-productive to the investigation, as the leads to their cell members died with them.