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Targeting Tourists: Militant Islamists in Egypt Shift Their Focus

The recent suicide attack in the Sinai peninsula suggests that the Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has adopted a new strategy.
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A balcony view from a hotel in Taba, Egypt. Photograph by Andy.

On 16 February, a suicide bomber entered a tourist bus near the town of Taba and the Egypt-Israel border, in Egypt’s South Sinai governorate, and detonated his explosives. The blast resulted in the deaths of three South Korean tourists and an Egyptian national. A number of other South Korean tourists were also wounded. The attack was later claimed by the Sunni Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM).

In a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the group stated that "With God's will we will be watching this treacherous gang of infiltrators and we will target their economic interests in all places in order to paralyse their hands from hurting Muslims." On 18 February, the group also purportedly threatened to target tourists if they did not leave the country by 20 February.

The attack against an overtly tourist target represents a significant development and may point to a new tactic by non-state armed groups in Egypt, who are agitating for the overthrow of the military-backed interim government.

A shift in focus

The attack in Taba is the first in this resort town since 2004, when car bombings there and in the nearby town of Nuweiba left 34 people dead. The incident is also the first to target tourist interests in the South Sinai governorate and wider Sinai Peninsula since the 2006 Dahab bombings.

The attack coincides with an ongoing political crisis in the country, which began in July 2013 when the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power and replaced it with an interim government. The overthrow and the subsequent violent crackdown by the state against Islamist protesters led to an escalation in armed attacks against police and military forces across the country.

In the Sinai peninsula, where Islamist militant activity has steadily increased since the 2011 Arab Spring, militant groups grew in strength and extended their armed activity from the North Sinai governorate to the wider country, excluding the country’s resort towns or tourist interests. Since mid-2013, the country has been beset by a number of high-profile and mass-casualty bombings in Egypt’s primary cities, including Cairo. These have been largely attributed to ABM, its affiliate groups and militants sympathetic to the Islamist political parties. The targets have largely been members of the police and military, government personalities and state facilities. The attack on 1 February points to a potential shift in focus of ABM.

ABM and security in the Sinai

ABM has, to date, largely confined its armed activity to attacks against state interests. It is also likely to have been involved in the dozens of acts of sabotage against oil and gas pipelines in the North Sinai since 2011. Its decision to re-orientate towards tourist interests is noteworthy and logical. The group, supported by international militant groups and supplied via the Gaza Strip, is agitating for the overthrow of the military and the interim government.

It has undoubtedly acknowledged that simply confronting the military and police is not sufficient and that it also needs to attack one of its primary revenue sources. Tourism is a critical component of the Egyptian economy and, in addition to providing the country with foreign currency, employs tens of thousands of Egyptians. ABM understands that targeting tourists or tourist sites will significantly affect the already struggling sector and overall economy and will serve to assist the group in its general objective.

The southern Sinai is home to numerous resort towns and areas, including the popular Sharm el-Sheikh resort and St Catherine’s Monastery. Since the bombings in 2004 to 2006, the Egyptian government has earmarked the southern Sinai as a priority security area. The police presence is extensive and the resort towns well protected; however, routes between resorts remain prone to insecurity.

In 2012 and early 2013, a number of foreign tourists travelling overland in the South Sinai were abducted in numerous separate incidents by local Bedouins demanding concessions from the government. The foreigners were generally released unharmed shortly after being abducted; however, the fact that tourists could be abducted highlighted the lesser security measures outside resort areas. It is thought that the authorities have since improved overland security measures, and there have been no reported abductions since mid-2013. However, the 16 February bombing points to another possible flaw in security in the South Sinai governorate and once again underlines the risk of cross-country travel, even in areas where security is thought to be heightened such as the immediate border area.

At present, it is unclear if ABM will launch a sustained campaign against the tourism sector, including in the Sinai Peninsula, from its primary operating areas in the North Sinai. One attack does not represent a new trend; however, ABM has operated extensively in both the North Sinai and South Sinai since 2013 and has claimed or been blamed for rocket attacks targeting the Israeli city of Eilat (located immediately east of Taba) and a car bombing near a security force facility in El-Tor, capital of the South Sinai, on 7 October 2013. At minimum, the group has an operational capability to infiltrate and conduct attacks in the South Sinai. The recent attack and its statement also clearly highlight that it possesses a clear motivation to target economic interests, including the tourism sector.

The conclusion, therefore, is that it will attempt to conduct further attacks against economic/tourist targets in the near-term. The likelihood of a successful attack will possibly be lessened by the anticipated increased intercity/town route security the local authorities are likely to implement following the 16 February attack. This may lead ABM to target secondary targets or smaller resort areas in the Sinai Peninsula or elsewhere in Egypt. It may also attempt to conduct attacks via alternative methods.

On 25 January 2014, ABM claimed responsibility for the destruction of an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula. A video released by the group showed what appeared to be a militant firing a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (SAM) at the aircraft. This attack, which has yet to be replicated, realised long-standing concerns that militants in the region had obtained access to advanced weaponry. The potential exists that ABM and other like-minded groups, having assessed that attacks against tourist interests are now increasingly required, may seek alternative modes of attack, including SAM assaults against commercial airliners. These threats have led to warnings in the past. Air traffic over Eilat was suspended for a time in August 2013 while a Dutch airliner suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh in October of the same year.

Looking forwards

Islamist militants in Egypt will seek to expand their operations and grow in strength over the near-term. Access to power via previously legitimate means has now been firmly restricted by the current regime. The primary ‘voice’ of the Islamist bloc in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has effectively been banned and it is unlikely that it will agree or even be allowed to participate in the next national elections. Militants may therefore benefit from an increase in support for violence against the state from previously moderate and conservative Islamist quarters of Egyptian society. Groups such as ABM, which are now well-established, are also likely to seek out new targets in their campaign to unseat the military and its appointed interim government.

Economic interests remain, in their view, legitimate targets. These interests/future targets include tourists, tourist sites and resort areas. Elevated security in these areas or near areas where foreigners congregate, particularly in the Sinai peninsula, will limit the likelihood of a successful attack; however, militants, who have already shown that they can adapt their strategy and alter their targeting criteria may seek out alternative targets (e.g. outside the Sinai) or alternative methods of attack (e.g. SAMs).

By Andre Colling, Chief Analyst for Middle East and North Africa, at red24. 

Correction 19/2/14: The article originally stated that the attack took place on 17 February rather than 16 February. This has now been corrected.

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