Extremism Rises among Egypt's Poor Bedouin ; Palestinians Aided the Sinai Terrorist Cell Blamed for a Deadly April Bombing, Egypt Said Tuesday

By Sarah Gauch Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Extremism Rises among Egypt's Poor Bedouin ; Palestinians Aided the Sinai Terrorist Cell Blamed for a Deadly April Bombing, Egypt Said Tuesday


Sarah Gauch Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As Egypt's security forces complete their massive manhunt for suspects in three suicide bombings in the Sinai resort of Dahab last month, experts and residents say it's clear that this city and the sprawling desert and craggy mountains around North Sinai have become a new breeding ground for violent Islamic extremism in Egypt.

It is here in this vast and isolated region, traditionally known for smuggling, that extremists have planned high-profile attacks on nearby resorts, officials say.

But experts and residents agree that the reason behind growing Islamic extremism is not only Sinai's expanse and isolation. Also responsible are the desperate living conditions among many of North Sinai's residents, which have made young men angry enough to commit recent terrorist attacks, including three at tourist resorts and two against international peacekeepers since October 2004, killing about 120 people in all.

The government must address these conditions, says local businessman Safwat el-Gelbana, if it wants to solve its Islamic extremist problem. "Unless there is political vision, no solution can be found," he says. "The generals alone cannot solve the problem. This is one of the reasons people turn to religion."

On Monday, Egypt's Ministry of Interior released a statement, announcing that it had caught or killed most of the suspects in the Dahab attacks. Officials said that 22 were in police custody and seven were killed, including the man police say was the terrorist group's leader, Nasser Khamis el-Mellahi. Mr. Mellahi, alleged leader of Tawhid wa el-Jihad, died during clashes with security forces near El-Arish earlier this month.

The statement also said that Palestinians helped finance and train this group, the first time Egyptian authorities have so specifically linked Gaza militants to the Sinai bombings. El-Arish is just 30 miles from the Gaza border.

Interior Ministry officials say that most of the Dahab bombing suspects are Bedouins, formerly nomadic tribes with distinct tribal laws and traditions. Security forces have also suspected North Sinai's Bedouin and non-Bedouin residents in other Sinai attacks, including bombings at the Sinai resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh last summer, and Taba in 2004.

Residents and experts say that Egypt's new generation of Islamic militants is drawn mostly from 18- to 30-year-old men; some are educated, some not; many are unemployed. Living in and around El- Arish, North Sinai's capital, and the surrounding mountains, many become isolated from their families, shunning the community of "nonbelievers" or being disowned by them first.

With few prospects, these young men are particularly susceptible to the extremist ideas of radicals, like Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, calling for a global jihad or holy war against non-Muslims, says Abed el-Kader Mubarak, a journalist with the independent weekly el- Osboua. He is also a member of El-Arish's Bedouin community, and has discussed Islam with the city's young radicals.

"These young men are frustrated. They have no work, always sitting at home. They become an easy target for these ideas," says Mr. Mubarak.

Residents here say if the government doesn't change its strategy and deal with Egypt's growing Islamic extremist problem by improving the area's living conditions, increasing numbers of young men will continue to join extremist groups. "It will happen again," says businessman Mr. Gelbana. "We need development, jobs, freedom, hope."

The poor Mediterranean city of El-Arish and the surrounding North Sinai region have a history of mutual distrust between residents and the government. Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula for 12 years until a peace treaty was signed with Egypt in 1979 and since then North Sinai's residents say the government has neglected and discriminated against them. …

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