Target: Egyptian Resort
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KWAME HOLMAN: As investigators in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, continued to search for clues in Saturday’s blasts, officials today said one thing they did know was that at least one attack was the work of a suicide bomber.
MOUSTAFA AFIFI (Translated): The first bombing we are sure it was a suicide attack because we found a body in the car. This is at the Ghazala Gardens Hotel. The second one we’re not sure. The third one, an investigation is underway; it could be a suicide bombing, we’re not sure yet. About the Ghazala attack, the car went into the reception area and exploded.
KWAME HOLMAN: The bombs were detonated in succession, beginning just after 1:00 a.m. Saturday: First, at a busy shopping arcade, where the blast left a crater 10 feet wide and three feet deep; then at the luxury Ghazala Gardens Hotel.
And authorities said it appeared the third explosive device, which went off in a parking lot near another hotel, was carried in a suitcase. More than 60 people were killed, most of them Egyptians. Some were some foreign tourists.
MOHAMMED KARIM (Translated): Whoever would do something like this cannot be a Muslim. Islam has nothing to do with such an act because the Egyptians people who died were Muslims and the visitors who came are good people who provide us with our livelihood.
KWAME HOLMAN: All of the blast sites are on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, a resort area on the Red Sea Coast that draws tens of thousands of international tourists every year.
Sharm el-Sheikh, known as the “City of Peace,” also has been a gathering place for international summits, including successful cease-fire talks last fall by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But even as Egypt plays host and participant in regional diplomacy, its government long has had internal struggles with Islamic militants, and the country has been a source of terrorists. The number-two man in al-Qaida, Ayman al Zawahri, is an Egyptian, as was the lead hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed Atta. And in 1997, a series of attacks by Islamic militants on foreign visitors in Egypt left more than 60 dead, and temporarily crippled the country’s $6-billion-a-year tourism industry.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to those attacks by cracking down on Islamists. Thousands were arrested, many remain imprisoned today. Last October, terrorists struck again in a series of coordinated suicide attacks on the resort of Taba, along the Israeli border; 34 people were killed. Investigators said the Taba attacks may be linked to the Sharm el-Sheikh blasts Saturday.
Two groups claimed responsibility. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades of al-Qaida in Syria and Egypt gave its assertion on an Internet site; it’s the same group that said it carried out the Taba bombings.
The other group, which calls itself “the Mujahideen of Egypt,” faxed its claim to newspapers. Egyptian police have detained dozens of people but so far made no formal arrests. The latest attacks came as Egyptians prepare for their first multi-candidate presidential elections since Mubarak took office in 1981, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, an act also attributed to Islamic militants.
JIM LEHRER: More now from Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit; and Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University. He was born in Egypt and is both a U.S. and Egyptian citizen.
Professor Shehata, what do you believe about who might be behind these Sharm el-Sheikh bombings?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, of course, we don’t have all the facts but it appears to be the work of international terrorism, probably an al-Qaida-related organization, clearly with some Egyptian participation; whether or not there were Pakistanis involved is another matter. And the targets were the Egyptian state, the Egyptian economy, as well as the foreign tourists who would likely been there in Sharm el-Sheikh.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same signs of an international thing, Mr. Scheuer?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think, Mr. Lehrer, yes. It has all the hallmarks of al-Qaida. The three major hallmarks of their attacks are to cause significant human casualties, to strike a blow against economies and the third is always to have a symbolic target.
The Sharm el-Sheikh has been a betenoire for Osama bin Laden since March of 1996 when the first big Arab-Israeli summit occurred there. He’s always identified it as a convention of quislings or traitors among the Arab world, that a few Israeli died and the world cried crocodile tears but a thousand Iraqi children were dying a day because of U.N. sanctions. So, in bin Laden’s mind, Sharm el-Sheikh is a very important symbolic target.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you heard what I reported in the News Summary a while ago, that the president of Pakistan said, wait a minute, there’s no way in the world the leaders of al-Qaida could have been behind this, or even London for that matter, because they’re in some remote area in the boonies outside somewhere in Pakistan. Do you buy that?
SAMER SHEHATA: Not really. I mean I think that represents a misunderstanding of what al-Qaida is these days. Al-Qaida is likely not an organization with card-carrying members with a central office in Waziristan Province someplace, with Osama bin Laden calling all of the shots. It’s more like a network of terrorist organizations or, as some say, a franchise outfit.
So it’s likely that the people who did this have some relationship to al-Qaida, share some of their philosophies and outlook and goals, maybe have even received some training in Afghanistan or elsewhere. But it’s unlikely that this was a decision that Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahri made in a cave some place in Pakistan.
JIM LEHRER: It was made on the ground by some people in Egypt.
SAMER SHEHATA: Possibly. Very likely in Egypt or someplace else and then executed in Egypt with the help of Egyptians.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I’m a little sanguine that al-Qaida is as broken as President Musharraf has said. It seems to me that in the age of encrypted Internet communications and satellite telephones and the like, communication is not that difficult from wherever you are on this earth.
And simply because both the London attacks and the Egyptian attacks so strongly fit into the mold of al-Qaida’s operations, I’m tempted to say that there may well have been an al-Qaida headquarters involvement in these attacks.
JIM LEHRER: And they said to do them back to back at these particular times?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: The timing, of course, we know from the 9/11 attacks and other attacks that the timing is entirely up to the man on the ground. Like the good CEO he is, bin Laden delegates the authority for timing to the man who’s responsible for the attack.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Professor Shehata, what about the terrorist elements in Egypt itself. Who would — what kind of fertile territory is there today for anybody who is alive with Osama bin Laden or any franchise of al-Qaida?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, this is a bit mysterious because many of us had thought — and I think still believe — that the Egyptian government was incredibly successful in their crackdown in the 1990s, using very harsh methods in wiping out the domestic sources of terrorism or the domestic terrorist groups, I should say.
And in fact one of the groups disbanded and another one, the members recanted. This was after, of course, many years of military trials, some executions, and some heavy-handed techniques on the part of the government. So, it’s quite alarming for many of us who follow this, and it’s also likely — or I believe that it’s not a completely domestic problem.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t think that it could have been mounted by the Egyptian elements themselves by themselves? That’s what you’re saying?
SAMER SHEHATA: That’s exactly what I’m saying. I think Egyptians probably pulled off some of this but I think that they got some help and maybe some directions and orders and training and explosives from elsewhere.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that the Egyptians … do you believe, as Professor Shehata did, that the Egyptians have been pretty effective in knocking out the terrorist elements before this?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, they’ve been very effective in amassing a body count and a population in prison is very effective. But there’s no way that the young men in Egyptian society are any more immune to the call of al-Qaidaism, if you will, than are the young men of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
So the idea — this is a problem, Mr. Lehrer, that you can’t eliminate. And as long as the main goal for this, the main motivation which, of course is U.S. foreign policy in the Islamic world, as long as that exists, it’s never going to be fully under control.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the Pakistani connection? It’s been alleged here that these folks came from Pakistan. Of course, the same allegation applies to the first London bombings as well.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: It’s a disturbing trend from my perspective. I worked on Pakistan and Afghanistan for most of my career. And suicidal attacks in those countries are rare. And if we’re now going to see Afghans, or especially Pakistanis conducting suicide attacks, that opens up a whole new population of would-be attackers that we had not previously had to worry about.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of that?
SAMER SHEHATA: I agree. I think also logistically it would have been very difficult for a group of foreigners — Pakistanis or Albanians or from whatever country — to get their hands on a number of Egyptian vehicles, get the explosives in the country and pull this off without the help of Egyptians. Almost impossible, I think.
JIM LEHRER: Well, where would the Egyptians … where would they have gotten the training in explosives and how to use explosives, how to get the cars, all the things you’re just saying; where does that come from? How does that happen?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, you know this better than I do. I think Iraq and Afghanistan.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, as you mentioned. There is no lack of training fields, Mr. Lehrer, for these people at this moment. The world is awash with areas where they can be trained.
JIM LEHRER: Is it overstating the case — if you all are right, that these things are loosely connected to an international movement, that there’s more to come?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Oh, sure. And we’re not being well served — Mr. Blair, Mr. Bush don’t serve their electorate well by the Pavlovian response of they hate our freedoms and they hate our liberties and they hate gender equality and all of that stuff. They downplay these people as simply haters.
And in many ways these people are lovers in the sense that they love their religion and they love their society and they deem our foreign policy an attack on that. This is not going to end any time soon. And, indeed, as long as Western and U.S. policies in the Middle East remain the same the growth potential for what I guess you could call al-Qaidaism is enormous.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have the same analysis?
SAMER SHEHATA: Pretty much the same analysis. There’s a skewed understanding of Islam, of course. But nevertheless, U.S. foreign policy — whether it be 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq or the U.S. government’s position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or our military footprints in the Persian Gulf — these are the policies that are the underlying root cause of this phenomenon.
JIM LEHRER: Debates about it aside, the rights and wrongs of U.S. policy aside, it’s the way it’s perceived by these young people in the Islamic world.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Perception is reality, Mr. Lehrer.
JIM LEHRER: I noticed when Kwame’s report was airing before I introduced the two of you and the young man, the young Egyptian said, these could not have been Muslims who did this because these were Egyptians who are also Muslims, et cetera. You agreed with him. And, yet, what other explanation is there?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, I think what he’s saying is that they were Muslims in name only. This has nothing to do with Islam, that this isn’t what Islam is about and that even if they called themselves Muslims, they were the ones who were delusional. I think that’s what he meant, and I was agreeing with him.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But what’s your analysis of that? You’ve been dealing with this problem for a long time. Just to pick up on what you said a moment ago, where does the religious part take over from the political aims of an Osama bin Laden, or are they so intertwined now you couldn’t pull them apart?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Again, on this one the professor is [sound is unintelligible] and more knowledgeable than I am. Islam is nothing if not political. And the tie between religion and politics in Islam is extraordinarily close.
And I’m very … sometimes I’m not very comfortable with the eagerness of, especially Western politicians, to say this is not real Islam. This is not … as if they knew. You know, most of them wouldn’t know a call to prayer if they heard it every day for a year.
The point I would make is that as in Christianity there are all kinds of strains of Islam. And there are some — as I think the professor will tell you — that are very marshal in their orientation.
JIM LEHRER: Would you tell us that?
SAMER SHEHATA: I think I would. And I would say that the vast majority, of course, which is an obvious point, of Muslims don’t follow this kind of Islam, that they look at different passages in the Koran and understand Islam the way it has most often been understood, as a kind of peaceful religion, as a religion in which violence isn’t supposed to be perpetrated unless it’s in a defensive kind of a way and in which there is no such thing as a global jihad against Westerners because of Western values or democracy or miniskirts.
JIM LEHRER: But it may be a small minority but it’s having a huge impact on the world.
SAMER SHEHATA: That’s certainly correct. That’s certainly correct.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: And the key, Mr. Lehrer, is the defensive option, the defensive idea. And that has been part of bin Laden’s genius, to portray what he’s up to is not an offensive jihad against American values or American women but against the offensive attack of the U.S. foreign policy in the Islamic world. He’s very much a defensive-minded man.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.