Slipping out of the marina at the southern Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh under cover of darkness, three stolen luxury yachts headed out into the Red Sea around midnight on Monday, October 18. A terror alert was immediately declared in southern Sinai and at the Sharm el-Sheikh base of the US 82nd Airborne Division, stationed there as part of the Multinational Observer Force since 1982 when Israel ceded the peninsula to Egypt under their 1979 peace treaty.
A day after the yachts vanished, more terror alerts were declared by the Saudi Red Sea Fleet, the Jordanian port of Aqaba and its Israeli twin, Eilat. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, October 25-27, Israeli and Jordanian naval commando units scoured the Gulf of Aqaba for the missing yachts – to no avail.
Great importance was attached to tracing the missing pleasure vessels because of the suspicion that al Qaeda operatives who carried out the October 7 bombings of three Sinai resorts stole them as getaway craft several days later. In those attacks, at least 34 people died and at least 150 injured. The suspicion was raised by Egyptian intelligence investigators and convinced US and Israeli counter-terrorism officials.
It was also feared that the terrorists might bring the yachts back to the Gulf of Aqaba packed with explosives in order to ram US, Israeli or Jordanian naval vessels.
The US navy maintains a permanent presence in these waters owing to Aqaba port’s pivotal role as a point of entry for military and civilian supplies destined for Iraq.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources consider it more likely that the stolen yachts will not be seen again after carrying a segment of the al Qaeda unit to a safe shore, possibly in Saudi Arabia or Sudan. For eleven days this group hid out in the Sinai desert and eluded Egyptian pursuit. Some of the terrorists may still be there, whether because they missed the boat to safety, split off, or belong to an Egypt- or Sinai-based al Qaeda cell preparing more attacks. The Egyptians have found traces that indicate some of the bombers have not left Sinai.
Jihadists melt into a Biblical landscape
The most probable hiding place is considered by Egyptian intelligence officials to be the lofty mountain region of southern Sinai, which they have circled. Its southern edge is only 25 miles from Sharm al-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort and summit center. Egyptian forces – planes, helicopters, troops on camelback and Bedouin trackers – are combing through a 250 square mile segment renowned for its unspoiled moonscape-like beauty, deep ravines and riverbeds. Natural water sources and date trees are plentiful, making it perfect for a band of terrorists on the lam. (See map)
Our counter-terrorism sources report that Egyptian forces have homed in on three areas:
Saint Catherine’s. Built in 530 by Emperor Justinian at the foot of Mt. Moses (Jebel Musa), where Moses received the Ten Commandments, this fortified compound stands on the traditional site of the Burning Bush and houses the oldest working monastery in the world. Atop a pink granite peak, 2,285 meters high, the monastery commands a narrow valley and a view of almost all Sinai. Its mountains are pierced by thousands of interconnected caves, some only attainable by roped climbers. By custom, the Greek monks employ Christian Arabs and fishermen from the Red Sea coastal town of A-Tur.
Jebel Sarbit al-Haddam, further to the west near the Gulf of Suez, is riddled with disused copper mines from the times of the Pharaohs with modern tunnels dug in the 1960s by Soviet bloc engineers looking for uranium.
Jabal a-Taya, to the north. Mountain passes in this region lead to broad, sandy expanses. Here, the escaping terrorist can find useful hiding places and shelter in ancient tombs, some dating to the Stone Age.
So far, the search has turned up nothing.
Cairo prefers to close the case
A week after the yachts disappeared and the security alert was declared, the Egyptian interior ministry announced a series of arrests and claimed the Sinai bombings investigation was at an end. Ayad Said Saleh, a Palestinian from the northern Sinai town of El Arish, was named mastermind, purportedly motivated by the deteriorating situation in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, to which his relatives fled in 1967. He was said to have carried out the attack with local help.
Foreign journalists plied the Egyptian officials with questions on how Saleh was able to orchestrate near-simultaneous car bombings at three separate locations. (See DNW 177, “Terror Front Thrusts into Eastern Mediterranean and Suez). The answer: he had acquired fundamentalist Muslim beliefs some years ago and organized a Bedouin criminal ring that salvaged 1,100 lb of TNT and RDX explosives from old landmines and weaponry scattered across the desert.
According to the Egyptians, the three cars used in the bombings were stolen in Sinai.
In short, the triple bombing strike had been mounted by a Palestinian and had nothing to do with al Qaeda; the global network was not running a cell out of Egypt.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources see in Egypt’s evasiveness over the Sinai attacks similarities to its refusal to admit, in the face of an American inquiry, that in 1999, Egypt Air 990 was deliberately plunged into the Atlantic by an Egyptian co-pilot shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Cairo’s intransigent refusal to name al Qaeda has stymied any real cooperation with US, Israeli or other investigators for getting to the bottom of the assault.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fears the destabilizing effect on his regime of this admission, especially if made in public, while he is grooming his son, Jamal, to succeed him next year. He therefore ordered the case closed and removed from the public agenda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have discovered that the Palestinian Saleh was no more an Islamic fundamentalist than he was a terrorist mastermind. He was a petty crook from a poor Palestinian family who lived with his divorced mother and two sisters in the north Sinai town of El Arish. He recently moved in with a widowed aunt after his mother got fed up and kicked him out. His father, who walked out on the family when Saleh was a child, lives in the Gaza Strip.
About three or four weeks before the Sinai bombings, Saleh started attending prayers at the El Arish mosque. He was an easy mark for the real organizers of the attacks. They recruited him and two other down-and-outs in the hardscrabble town: Mohammed Abdallah, a lathe operator, and Mohammed Sabah Hussein, an electrician. Bedouins struggling to eke out a living were also enlisted.
Slick talk and crisp currency
Our counter-terrorism experts note that al Qaeda has used similar recruiting techniques at least twice before. In the late 1990s, Mohammed Fazul, the Egyptian al Qaeda operative who plotted the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania roped in needy fishermen from villages in the Comoros Islands and Somalia. For the 2000 strike against the USS Cole, poor fishermen living around the port of Aden were drawn into the plot.
For the Sinai operation, a group of about eight smooth-talking Egyptians and foreign Arabs did the recruiting, passing out wads of crisp currency. They did not identify themselves or leave any contact numbers or addresses. This al Qaeda advance team appeared out of the blue in late August or early September and left just as abruptly. Equipped with all the intelligence and technical plans needed to build the car bombs and carry out the attack, they either brought the explosives with them or collected them from a source inside Egypt.
They had come in search of locals with the combined know-how for putting together car bombs and driving the vehicles to target.
Saleh’s criminal skills were put to use. It was his job to steal the three vehicles used later as bomb-cars and deliver them to a spot in the southern Sinai mountains where the Egyptians are currently hunting for members of the bomb team. He was then ordered to drive one of the rigged cars to the Taba Hilton.
Hussein, the electrician recruited with him was a cellular telephone repairman He built the timers for the bombs according to blueprints he received from the men who enlisted him. Lathe operator Abdullah prepared pipes which Hussein packed with explosives and wired to the timers.
It is now known that all three cars were packed with pipes full of explosives. Egypt’s claim that the bombs were put together from old landmines or shells found by Bedouin was bogus. Gathering 1,100 lbs of explosives abandoned in Sinai would take an army equipped with metal detectors hundreds of man-hours.
The drivers were assured the attack was no suicide mission and the timers attached to the explosives would give them time enough to run before detonation. None of the al Qaeda operatives participated in the actual attack. The perpetrators were all Sinai residents or Egyptians sent in from the mainland.
The Egyptian interior ministry announcement contained some grains of truth.
Salah the petty crook was indeed killed in the attack. According to our sources, the timers were set for 10 p.m., plenty of time for Salah, who drove one of the car bombs to the Hilton, and his passenger, whose identity is not known, to park the vehicle and get away. But at 9.40 p.m., he decided to take a shortcut and drive through a no-entry sign. A hotel guard, banging on the hood of the car, forced it to stop. A shouting match ensued – and the minutes ticked by. By the time Salah was able to park the car in front of the hotel, he realized he had to make a run for it. He and his accomplice did not get far before they were blown to bits.
He was identified through DNA traces sent to Amin al-Hindi, Palestinian intelligence chief in the Gaza Strip. They matched that of his estranged father.