Its multiple strikes were timed for the presence of thousands of Israeli Sinai aficionados, of whom several hundred were staying or passing through the Taba Hilton, 40 top Egyptian officials, two larger groups of high-ranking American and British diplomats with families and 100 Russian tourists.
Their intelligence was precise. Less so was their calculation of the death toll. Instead of the hundreds they expected, the toll they reaped was 37 at most – 13 Egyptians, 12 Israelis, four Russians, two Italians and six unidentified bodies. Nearly 150 people were wounded.
Yet the three car bombings that rocked the Sinai Peninsula Thursday, October 7 – and set off the biggest Israelite exodus from Egypt since Pharaoh’s day – were a clear step up, operationally and strategically, for al Qaeda’s global network. The future implications are bleak with plenty to worry counter-terrorism directors in the West and the Arab world.
It is clear to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts that al Qaeda’s strategists made a thorough study of past mistakes, focusing on the faulty design and execution of three operations: the 2002 attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya, the November 2003 bombings of the two synagogues, British consulate and HSBC bank in Istanbul and the August 2003 suicide bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.
Their modus operandi has scarcely varied since hijack-suicide terrorists struck the United States on 9/11. Planning and advance intelligence stages are lengthy, usually running into years. But since hitting New York and Washington, the network’s frame of operations has expanded and strengthened, its methods gained in sophistication.
In Sinai, al Qaeda’s bombers were men on the ground, a mixed bag thought to include Egyptians and/or Saudis, Palestinians and Jordanians, activated by a forward operations command which selected the targets, assigned the method and issued the date.
The close-by forward command format emerged clearly in the Bali and Marriot attacks in Indonesia, which were planned and activated from Brunei. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have discovered that the forward command which plotted the Istanbul raids and assigned the terror operatives was located in the small Iranian village of Dogobaizad at the foot of Mt. Ararat near the Turkish frontier. The top priority of the Egyptian-American-Israeli inquiry is to find the forward command that orchestrated the Sinai attacks. The investigators believe it is the key to unraveling many of the mysteries still surrounding the episode, such as the bombers’ identities and where they came from. Until this hidden entity is located, they will be groping in the dark.
1. Planning: Although the Egyptian inquiry is still in its early stages, the intelligence data available indicates the Sinai operation had a lengthy gestation – 18-24 months of planning, according to Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon. This would date its initiation to a time frame between late 2002 and early 2003.
In any event, it was conceived before the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The forward command had the Sinai plan ready to go long before a date was set for its execution by the top level. However, al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zuwahiri prefer their outrages to be meticulously plotted, long-sighted and of lasting impact. They shun the ad hoc ways of the Jordanian master terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and his brutal hostage-takers and car bombers, as practiced by his Jamaat al-Tawhid Wa’al Jihad in Iraq and his groups in Jordan and Syria, one of whose failed escapades was the use of truck bombs, some packed with chemical toxins, for strikes in Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
2. Target selection: The fundamentalist terror group invested a good deal of advance surveillance and strategic thought into the selection of the Sinai targets. The sumptuous Taba and Nueiba Hiltons were its primary targets. Bringing the Taba tumbling down would have given al Qaeda its greatest symbolic boost since the toppling of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Thursday evening, October 7, the Taba Hilton, only a step away on the Red Sea coast from Israel’s Eilat and Jordan’s Aqaba, was packed with more than 800 guests, most Israelis on their summer’s end Succoth holiday. Some lodged there; others had dropped in from Israel where gambling is illegal, to visit the gaming tables of the hotel casino. About 100 Russians, mostly tycoons on group flights, were there to catch some Sinai sunshine. The resort’s lure had also proved too much for two large groups of US and British diplomats and their families, who gathered there, in defiance of intelligence warnings of a terrorist attack in store that very week broadcast by their respective governments and Israeli security.
The second primary target was the five star Nueiba Hilton, about 32 km from Taba down the Red Sea coast, where some 40 Egyptian official VIPs and their families were staying at the five-star Hilton Nueiba. Their aides and servants put up at the at the two-storey La Playa.
According to our sources, some members of the group were close associates of the president’s son and heir apparent Jamal Mubarak, such as the chairman of the Egypt’s ruling party economy committee and the director of Egypt’s airports authority. Some weeks earlier, the group had decided to spend their vacation together in Sinai.
The third target, Ras al-Satan, was also cannily chosen. Its two popular beach restaurants are situated three-quarters of the way between the Hilton Taba and La Playa. After the first two car bombs struck the hotels, the third was assigned to explode between the two beach restaurants expected to be crowded with holidaymakers from all the targeted groups.
Had all three bombings gone according to plan, al Qaeda would have massacred hundreds of Israelis, many important Egyptians, a large number of high-ranking US and British diplomats and scores of Russian tourists.
Its impact would have surpassed that of the March 2004 Madrid training bombings that killed 191 and the massacre of Beslan schoolchildren last month.
Intelligence, organization and routes
The intelligence groundwork that must have gone into the Sinai attacks is impressive.
Investigators are anxiously probing for the spies who tipped off al Qaeda’s forward command well in advance on the confidential vacation dates and destinations fixed by the top Egyptian officials, the private travel plans of American and British diplomats and the arrival of Russian tycoons from Moscow for a private break.
The presence of Israelis in droves on every festival was public knowledge.
The obvious answer would seem to be personnel at the two Hilton hotels. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that no staff member at either hotel has so far been discovered in underhand dealings with terrorists. The inquiry is therefore focusing on intelligence from outside Sinai, starting provisionally with Egypt, Jordan or Sudan.
This question ties in closely with the sources of the bomb cars and their operators. It is already clear that the bombers arrived separately and took delivery of the vehicles in Sinai. All the cars came from Egypt; the one with the most powerful punch, which destroyed a wing of the Hilton Taba, came from Greater Cairo.
As to the men who drove them to target, there are several current theories on their points of departure: the Cairo area or the southern Egyptian Red Sea port of Al Ghardaqah, one end of a sea shuttle from Sharm el Sheikh. This would be the natural route either of local Egyptians, or of Saudi al Qaeda members from the camps in northern Sudan near the Egyptian border, or from Jeddah (See attached map.)
A third possibility is that the bombers came from Jordan, using the Aqaba-Nueiba ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba. Egyptians may too have started out at Suez at the southern outlet of the Suez Canal and proceeded by another convenient ferry to the southern Sinai oil town of A-Tur.
(All these routes are marked on the attached DEBKA map.)
The tracing of one of the bomb cars to Greater Cairo attests to an active al Qaeda terrorist infrastructure in or around the Egyptian capital. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts draw conclusions from this discovery:
Al Qaeda has managed to entrench itself more deeply in Egypt despite the comprehensive drive waged by Egyptian intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman for more than a year to wean local Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jamaa Islamiya and Moslem Brotherhood, away from violence by negotiations and give-and-take accords. Al Qaeda’s Number 2, al Zawahiri, who is head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, closely monitored the talks through his Egyptian operatives but did not interfere. Instead, al Qaeda used the conciliatory atmosphere between the jihadists and the Egyptian government as a smokescreen for organizing and planting a new terrorist outfit designed to destabilize the Mubarak dynasty on the model of the al Qaeda cell targeting the Saudi royal house in Riyadh.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, each of the three car bombs entered Sinai from a different location. The first car set out from Cairo and crossed the Suez Canal via the traffic tunnel linking mainland Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. The second vehicle apparently arrived on board a ferry, freighter or large fishing boat that made its way from the city of Suez on the eastern bank of the canal to a-Tur on the western coast of the Sinai. The third car was placed aboard the daily ferry linking the Egyptian Red Sea port of al-Ghardaqah with Sharm el-Sheikh at Sinai’s southern extremity.
At the touch of a detonator held by their drivers, the cars were primed to explode and kill any overly suspicious Egyptian security officials en route who insisted on too close an inspection. Egyptian investigators believe the terrorists were in constant telephone or radio contact with their headquarters to precisely synchronize their timetables. The cars arrived at their respective targets simultaneously, but exploded at 20-second intervals, a sign that the terrorists who detonated the second and third vehicles pushed the detonators only after receiving signals that it was now their turn.
The investigators are completely baffled by the types of explosives used; a type in regular use in Sinai’s quarries for the Taba Hilton and Nueiba, an unknown variety never encountered in the Middle East, including Iraq, for Ras al-Satan.
Further evidence that a command center outside Sinai coordinated the bombings was provided by the claim of responsibility issued by the Martyr Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a branch of al Qaeda. This group is named for Osama bin Laden’s late spiritual mentor, a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Jenin, to whose doctrine of world jihad without borders al Qaeda is faithful to this day.
The group’s statement, issued Sunday, October 10, some 48 hours after the bombings, claimed two of the perpetrators of the Sinai bombings had got away. Egyptian security services assume that four escaped. The disparity suggests that two escapees managed to flash to headquarters a pre-arranged signal: “We escaped.” The other two did not, and their fate is unclear.
Al Qaeda’s strategic gains
One, the organization has finally succeeded in stretching its operational reach outward from the Persian Gulf, Arabia, Iraq and Turkey to the eastern Mediterranean, Sinai and Israel.
Two, it has pulled off its first operation on Egyptian soil – at a place very close to the Suez Canal.
Three, al Qaeda has got Israel enclosed in an iron circle, having struck terrorist roots in neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, Mubarak and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are playing a political game of pretend. Both refuse to heed their security and intelligence advisers and ignore al Qaeda’s culpability for the Sinai attacks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Cairo sources have learned of an explicit directive from Mubarak to his ministers to abstain from pointing the finger of blame at al Qaeda or uttering a word of condemnation against bin Laden for attacking Egyptian territory. He is holding firmly to the view that no harm came to Egypt from al Qaeda’s operations; they targeted Israelis who happened at the time to be visiting Egypt. Therefore, Egypt has no quarrel with the terrorist network and no cause to attack the group physically, covertly or morally.
While grooming his son for the presidential succession, Mubarak has clearly dug his head deep in the sand to blot out the impression that his administration, like the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, is beset by al Qaeda terror.
Sharon has chosen the line that Egypt and Israeli are working closely in the investigation to bring out the truth behind the attacks. That is nowhere near the truth. On this subject too, Egyptian officials are trotting out the Mubarak line. “We have accepted limited cooperation for the sake of fighting terrorism. But Egypt’s security was not jeopardized, only Israel’s. It is therefore up to the Israelis to deal with the threat.”
This is countered from Israel by the argument that the main thrust of al Qaeda’s assault was aimed at Egypt; Israelis just happened to be there. If any country’s national security was threatened it was Egypt’s.
These semantic contortions are not slowing al Qaeda down. The fundamentalists are already moving on with the planning of their next mass outrage.
On Monday, October 11, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades published another message, this one a threat to blow up all of the “outposts of international espionage and heresy in Egypt and Greater Syria”, a reference to Western and Russian embassies in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Egypt, and the Israeli embassies in Cairo and Amman. The group issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the evacuation of the embassies, signaling a second major terrorist attack is in the works before the desert dust has settled from the blasts in Taba, Ras al-Satan and Nueiba. Braced for fresh assaults, regional security and intelligence services have stepped up the already high alert declared after the Sinai bombings.
Al Qaeda’s missteps and lessons learned
Al Qaeda failed to achieve its objective of maximum carnage and destruction in Sinai because of defects in planning and execution. Examined objectively, the group erred in forgoing the use of suicide bombers and relying on a single weapon – explosives-packed vehicles, instead of mounting multistage assaults at each of the target sites.
At the HiltonTaba, the bomber – one or two – mistakenly blew up only a wing of the hotel. They had enough explosives, half a ton packed in their Isuzu, to demolish the entire building, only they parked in the wrong place, outside the lobby entrance instead of at the supporting wall, before making off to detonate the bomb by remote control.
Egyptian and Israeli investigators believe the attack’s planners knew exactly how the Hilton was built and expected the collapse of the supporting wall to bring the hotel crashing down and killing hundreds of people. The terrorists’ nerves may have been frayed after their long journey through Sinai and they dumped the car as fast as they could before escaping.
Further south, a Peugot 504 loaded with a 250-kilo bomb was destined to blow up the Nueiba Hilton hotel and kill the entire group of high Egyptian officials staying there. The car never reached its destination. It exploded on a hill overlooking the hotel. Some 20 Egyptians on the beach were injured in the blast. The more seriously hurt were taken to hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Mubarak’s presidential jet landed several hours later and ferried them to hospital in Cairo as befitted Egyptian VIPs.
The reason for the Nueiba plan going awry is not clear. It is possible that the bomber chickened out before he got near the hotel and decided to detonate atop an opposite hill. Alternatively, the explosives blew up prematurely. That theory is negated by the absence of a body.
The drivers of the third bomb car, a Nissen, ran into bad luck at the entrance to the Ras al Satan restaurant area. They were spotted by two witnesses, the guard at the roped entrance and a baker in one of the restaurants, outside for a breath of fresh air. Both saw the two men jumping out of the car and running away. The Bedouin guard beamed a flashlight on their faces and identified them as Egyptians.
There are indications that a pair of bombers was used for each attack, six in all and none captured.
Some investigators surmise that al Qaeda’s failure to prepare a Plan B – or second level of attack in the event of failure or partial success in Sinai points to one of the hands behind the strikes, Mohammed Fazul, al Qaeda’s East Africa operations chief who masterminded the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It may have been because of his experience in the combined, multi-level hit he designed in 2002 to bomb the Israeli Mombasa Paradise hotel and launch missiles against an Israeli Arkia charter jet taking off from the Kenyan resort that cured him of back-up planning. There, 11 Kenyans were killed and only three Israelis.
Two years later, there is no explanation for why the shoulder-launched Strela missile missed a target as large as an Arkia Boeing 757, carrying 257 passengers and crew, at a range of a few meters. In Sinai, Fazul may have sought to even his record against Israeli targets by sticking to a single surefire weapon, car bombs.
Despite this difference, similarities have been marked between the Mombasa and Sinai raids, strong enough to co-opt the Mossad agents who probed the Kenya attack to the Sinai team of investigators.