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
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. …