Understanding the Attacks in Egypt

The vicious acts at Sharm-El-Sheik, Egypt, mark the continuation of the jihadist attacks consistently characterized by methodical planning, meticulous preparation and simultaneous and effective execution against symbolic targets that produce spectacu

The vicious acts at Sharm-El-Sheik, Egypt, mark the continuation of the jihadist attacks consistently characterized by methodical planning, meticulous preparation and simultaneous and effective execution against symbolic targets that produce spectacular and astonishing results, primarily in terms of human and economic loss and damage, media attention, and creating anxiety and fear.  Although the use of suicide bombers may significantly enhance the impact of an attack, it is not always essential to its effective execution.

A principal motivating factor remains the desire to remove Western influence from Muslim lands and eliminate those Muslims, considered apostates, who collaborate to promote and further that influence.  Jihadists regard Egypt's secular government of Hosni Mubarak as one of the most heretical and corrupt in the Muslim world, particularly due to its close alliance with the US and role as the second-largest recipient of US aid, its recognition and relationship with the state of Israel, its policies and Western orientation.  The creation of a fundamentalist theocratic state remains a leading objective.

Tourism is a huge source of income for the Egyptian government and the resorts of Sharm-El-Sheik, heavily frequented by many Western tourists, and Taba, with a significant concentration of Israelis, provide a sizeable amount of that income.  For the radicals, these places also represent centers of Western depravity in their land. The attacks at Sharm-El-Sheik, including last year's Taba massacre which claimed 34 lives, serve the common purpose of directly striking and weakening the government's purse and discouraging and removing foreign visitors and their "decadent" influence, particularly at the height of the summer tourist season.  Inevitably, tourist cancellations for the rest of the summer and the immediate future will have a significant economic impact on the Egyptian economy, and possibly summer tourism throughout the Mediterranean.

Egypt is no stranger to this form of religious-political extremism.  Over the centuries, fundamentalism has assumed varying forms in many religions. Contemporary Islamic Sunni fundamentalism has significantly drawn upon the writings of the mid-20th century Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, a leading voice of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and inspiration to other like-minded religious-political movements throughout the Muslim world.  The secular-nationalist Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, deemed it a systemic threat and banned it. Autocratic and repressive methods further led political expression underground, and particularly into the mosques.  Qutb was eventually hanged in 1966 and the movement's more radical elements took up armed struggle, forming groups such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad which presented a serious threat to the state.  The assassination of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, after signing the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel brought it global attention.  Throughout the 1990's, Egypt was rocked by a series of spectacular attacks, assassinations and bombings, such as the massacre of 58 foreign tourists at Luxor, a principal Egyptian tourist attraction.  The extremists even proved capable of mounting operations beyond Egypt's borders as demonstrated by the near successful attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addas Ababa, Ethiopia.

However, Egypt's brutally effective security services eventually defeated the extremists by either capturing, killing, or forcing its members to escape abroad.  Some fled to Europe and continue to present a clear and present.  Others went to Afghanistan, including the most notable fugitive, Ayman Al- Zawahiri, who joined forces with Osama Bin Laden to form what is commonly known as Al Qaeda. 

Although such acts of violence are not likely to occur in Egypt with the same continuity and consistency of the 1990's, each sporadic attack in Egypt, and the greater Middle East, will be executed with the intent to inflict the greatest possible carnage primarily against targets representing Western interests, values and policies.   Although the characteristics of the post-9/11 jihadist attacks have become fairly standard, the debate in the intelligence community is whether these attacks are being perpetrated by independent, self-sufficient, local jihadist cells or the Al Qaeda leadership, elements of which are believed to be hiding in the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Pakistan's urban centers.  The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, whereby a "coalition of the like-minded" operates on an ad hoc basis according to the circumstances and needs in each individual target country.  A major challenge for international intelligence services and law enforcement authorities is that they are confronting a young new generation of jihadists who are virtually unknown, highly clandestine, evasive, many with no past criminal history or record, and fully committed to its cause.   

July 25, 2005


Updated 7/26/05