Sinai Probe: Al Qaeda, Palestinians – or Both?

Egyptian investigators have only just begun peeling off the layers of an extremely complex and sensitive search for the hands behind the bomb blasts that hit three holiday resorts in Sinai last Thursday, October 7. The peninsula is popular with Israelis, a quarter of a million of whom frequent its beaches, hotels, campsites and mountain trails every year. Of the total of 31 or 32 victims, 12 were Israelis, the largest national group. Not all the bodies found have been identified.
One of the targeted sites, Nuweiba on the Red Sea, was discovered Monday, October 11, not to have been struck by suicide bombers but by two booby-trapped cars detonated by remote control. This was confirmed by the two suspicious figures seen making off in the dark by a local guard and a baker who are now helping the Egyptian police put together identikits.
Indeed, the Egyptians are puzzled by the discovery that none of the exploding cars bears the presence of a suicide bomber. They have therefore begun testing the theory that the Ras al-Satan and Nuweiba attacks were carried out by 6 to 8 terrorists who were not suicide killers.
Even the Isuzu jeep which blew up a wing of the Taba Hilton lobby bore neither hide nor hair – or even a bloodspot – indicating the presence of the one or more suicide bombers believed to have driven it, even after the vehicle was stripped down screw by screw for minute examination. The Egyptians believe the car contained 600 kilos of explosives, enough to vaporize their bodies. The owners of all the quarries of Sinai have been called in for questioning. But the Bedouin tribesmen interrogated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks have not provided any useful leads.
The investigators have also deduced that the terrorists hit the wrong end of the hotel by mistake. Had they hit its supporting wall, the entire building with its 900 guests would have crumbled wreaking great carnage, instead of just the lobby and one wing.
A Palestinian connection to the Sinai attacks was discussed exhaustively Saturday, October 9, in a conference at Taba between Shin Beit director Avi Dichter and the head of the Egyptian inquiry Habib Adli. Like the Egyptians, Israel is also looking into the possibility that the suicide bombers arrived from Jordan or another part of Sinai, most likely by sea.
The route of entry is important as it provides a clue to the hand behind the attacks. One suggestion under examination is that they were orchestrated by al Qaeda’s Jordanian operations chief in Iraq, Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, who still keeps his Jordanian terrorist rings active and is also closely allied with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist elements in the Hashemite kingdom. Another theory points to al Qaeda sleeper cells in Egypt, the Gaza Strip or Israel. They too may have activated Hamas, which could never have organized a mega-terror attack on the Sinai scale unaided and has until now shunned operations on foreign soil.
A more remote option is al Qaeda’s chief of operations in East Africa, Mohammed Fazul, who staged the November 28, 2002, attack on the Israeli Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, followed by the missed shoulder-borne Strela missile attack on an Arkia airliner coming into land with hundreds of Israelis aboard. Most of the casualties in that attack were Kenyans.
This last possibility is being carefully scrutinized because there are similarities between the Mombasa hotel and Taba Hilton strikes, and a hint that the planners of the Sinai blasts were familiar with the Kenya operation and drew lessons from their mistakes there. The Mossad has put its Mombasa investigating team on the Taba case. This file remains open because of some unanswered questions, such as how did the Strela missile come to miss its target?
The al Qaeda direction was further strengthened Monday by a claim of responsibility for the string of attacks in Egypt on a website signed by the Martyr Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a branch of al Qaeda, which also asserted that two of the perpetrators got away. This would partly explain the vanishing suicides in at least two of the bomb cars.
The Azzam group went on to demand the evacuation within 48 hours of the “outposts of espionage and heresy” (ed. Embassies) in Egypt and Greater Syria (ed. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) or they would be blown up.
The late Palestinian-born Abdullah Yussuf Azzam was the first mentor to impart to Osama bin Laden and the Hamas the doctrine that calls for a worldwide jihad without borders against the West, namely, the Christians and the Jews.
Invoking his name offers a pointer to the two fundamentalist terrorist groups, al Qaeda and the Palestinian Hamas.
debkafile‘s political sources note that neither Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak nor Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has publicly condemned al Qaeda or any other terrorist group for the Sinai attacks. They both appear to be at sea over how to handle the new threat. In private conversation, Mubarak shrugs it off as directed against Israel with Egypt only incidentally involved rather than a target. Sharon, for his part, refers to Egypt as the terrorists’ primary objective.

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