Trouble in resort paradise

Deadly attacks expose radical, criminal underbelly in resort-studded Sinai.

Naima Muhammad's life has turned upside down since her son was named a suspect in last fall's deadly Sinai resort bombings: Security forces detained her, she and her husband were summoned for DNA tests and relatives stopped visiting for fear police would target them too. A year after the first in a series of bombings shook the Sinai, violence still plagues the desert peninsula, despite a police crackdown and mass arrests that many Egyptians view as heavy-handed. Many now fear that parts of the Sinai are fertile ground for terrorists. And Israel last weekend warned its citizens to stay away because more attacks might occur. Egypt, which depends on tourism, disputes that. It says that while security remains tight and gunbattles continue, it has made great progress in cracking a network of extremists believed centered in the desert peninsula's north. But Muhammad claims the sweeps are only making matters worse. "You're making enemies by wrongfully arresting and mistreating people," she said during a recent interview in the family's squat home on a garbage- and rubble-strewn street in this northern Sinai city. Her own son, a 23-year-old father, is innocent, she maintains, and was targeted by police only because he is an observant Muslim. Local leaders say Sinai residents are mistreated by security forces bent on mass arrests, and also bent on extracting confessions no matter what methods are used. At the same time, local leaders acknowledge that people living in a combustible mix of poverty, ignorance and lawlessness as the Sinai has long suffered from are attracted to terrorism. They complain that Egypt's central government has ignored such problems, leading to the current situation. The first attack, October 7, killed 34 people including 11 Israelis in the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan. Muhammad's son, Osama el-Nakhalwy, managed to flee when, his mother contends, police mistakenly raided the house of a cousin in central Sinani, near where el-Nakhlawy and his wife live. There are reports el-Nakhlawy was later arrested, but Muhammad says she cannot confirm those. Then came the worst attack: A July 23 triple-bombing in the Sinai resort of Sharm e-Sheikh that killed at least 63 people. Officials say they fear both the October and July attacks were the work of the same terrorist group. Last week, police in Sinai killed three alleged terrorists, claiming one was the Sharm e-Sheikh bombing mastermind, a second was the bomb maker and a third a major organizer. A few days later, an Egyptian security official said his forces were searching the Sinai for three more men suspected in both the Taba and Sharm e-Sheikh attacks. But on Monday, another security official dismissed the Israeli warning, saying the main players in both bombings had already been killed or captured. Several bombing suspects already in custody hail from el-Arish and surrounding areas. But Abdel Hamid Ali, a ruling party member who represents the Sinai in parliament, contends that if any Sinai residents were involved, then they were nothing but poor, desperate men who hired themselves out. "There must be other people pulling their strings and exploiting their economic need," he said. Three groups, including two claiming links to al-Qaida, have said they carried out the Sharm attacks. None of the claims has been independently verified. Criminals drug dealers and weapons and people smugglers have long used the rugged, mountainous northern and central Sinai for refuge. And some experts believe criminals have begun working with political and religious militants running car theft rings, for example that fund terror operations. "The people need a way to earn a living... . The rehabilitation of central Sinai is what will bring true security to Egypt," Ali said. There has been some effort in that direction. After the bombings, the government approved digging 20 irrigation wells in the central peninsula, and approved electrical service for six villages, Ali said. Military officials also met recently with tribal leaders to hear their grievances. But the Middle East is rife with conspiracy theories, and thus Israel also has been blamed, by some local people, for the attacks in the Sinai, which it once occupied. Many Egyptians accuse Israel of wanting to sow chaos here. Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the attackers could be drawn from either criminal gangs or Muslim militants. "If you want to smuggle explosives, you'll turn to someone with a criminal background, who is after money, not ideology," Rashwan said. "Others may have been recruited on religious, not criminal ground." One of the men killed by security forces last week, Khaled Mesaed, described as the Sharm mastermind, was also deeply religious, his family says. His mother, Aida Selim, said her son kept to himself, abided by the teachings of Islam, worked all day and was "close-mouthed." "When I used to ask him about anything, he would say: 'Don't ask about what doesn't concern you,"' she said. His wife, Mariam Selmy, said her husband was jailed for almost a month as a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood while earlier attending university in Cairo. His family contends he is innocent and fled home shortly after the Taba bombings fearing he would be tortured by police. "Those who die are our children and those who conduct the attacks are also our children," said Mesaed's mother, Selim, with a sigh. "This is not in our interest."