Tourists are the new battlefield in militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ “economic war” with the Egyptian government.
On Tuesday, the Sinai Salafist jihadi group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a tour bus in Taba, a resort town on the Rea Sea. The attack killed three South Koreans and their Egyptian bus driver, and injured 16.
They are up against a state weakened by revolution and a damaged economy, but their claim that tourists are now collateral damage is highly unlikely to cheer the Egyptians they are trying to win over.
A written statement from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — not to be confused with inflammatory declarations from two fake Twitter accounts — claimed it had, "successfully sacrificed one of its heroes to detonate the bus headed toward the Zionists, and this comes as part of our economic war against this traitorous agent regime".
Not only was it the first deliberate terrorist attack on tourists since 2009, when a small bomb killed a French schoolgirl in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar, but it was a sharp change from the usual pipelines and police stations the group normally targets.
David Barnett, a researcher for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has followed the militant group for some time and told New Matilda the attack was a significant escalation.
"Going from pipelines to tourists is a big jump. A harsh response from Egypt’s rulers is likely," he said in an email, adding that it has probably also ruined a vigorous government campaign to bring back tourists.
Barnett didn’t think there would be copycat attacks yet, as other groups such as Al Furqan Brigades and Ajnad Misr hadn’t shown the same ability to carry out large hits. But, he said, “anything is possible”.
Targeting tourists is unlikely to do Egyptian militant groups’ cause celebre any good, says independent Sinai security analyst Zack Gold. Historically, terrorist groups who attacked tourists have lost the support of Egyptians.
“Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has previously targeted and threatened economic drivers of the military, such as the gas pipeline to armed forces-controlled industries. An attack on tourism certainly raises pressure, but because the Egyptian population of South Sinai depends on the tourist economy this attack will ultimately harm Egyptians,” Gold said.
The Luxor massacre of 58 tourists and four Egyptians in 1997 by Gama’a al-Islamiyya sent local people onto the streets demanding, and receiving, a show of force from the Mubarak government.
Attacks on Sinai resort towns Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba between 2004-06 brought about severe military crackdowns afterwards.
When those attacks were launched, the Egyptian state was comparatively strong. But many of the hydra-like problems facing Egypt today could bring it to its knees, making fatal terrorist attacks on foreigners that much more effective and destabilising.
Egypt is facing desperate energy shortages this year and there is no quick or cheap solution. Unemployment continues to creep higher, especially among frustrated, fractious youth. No one is quite sure how the national budget is functioning, only that it’s floating along on petro-dollars from the Gulf
American University of Cairo political science professor, Walid Kazziha, said the government’s answer to this attack would probably be to over-react with suffocating measures.
“I would expect this real blanket reaction which could in some ways protect Egypt from some attacks, but on the other hand it’s not intelligent enough to wipe [them]out altogether,” he told New Matilda.
“It could work under certain circumstances but it (won’t) eliminate the danger, the danger is there. The Egyptian security reaction is not of an intelligent type.”
However the government responds, the weary tourism sector, which had been looking forward to a good year after a horror 2013, is already feeling the effects of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ new strategy.
On Monday the UK’s biggest tour companies, Tui Travel and Thomas Cook, cancelled day tours to South Sinai’s St Catherine’s Monastery which is about two hours from Taba.
In nearby Dahab, American English teacher Jordan Falk was questioning on Monday whether to shorten his stay.
"I'm considering leaving early and I'm considering flying instead of taking the bus," Falk told New Matilda. “That freaks me out. I'd rather not take the chance if they're starting to go after tourists now instead of the police.”
His Australian friend Josh Drake, who lives in Cairo and left Dahab on Saturday, was more sanguine, saying he wouldn’t be holidaying in the central Sinai now and definitely wouldn’t travel by bus — but would likely be back for a holiday in a few months.
Just last week tourism minister Hisham Zaazou was in London trying to convince British tourists that Egypt was now safe to visit.
His personal pleas came as the latest figures for December showed tourist numbers down 30.7 per cent year on year. Hotel occupancy in the high season of September down to 1 per cent in Luxor. In the Red Sea it was between 10-15 per cent and in Aswan the hotels were completely empty.
Internationally, Australia’s travel warning remained unchanged, telling travellers not to visit the North Sinai and reconsider their need to travel to Egypt as a whole. Travel warnings from Germany and the UK, countries with heavy tourist flows to Egypt, remained unchanged too, for now.
But people such as Kazziha think it’s only a matter of time before Egypt is a no-go zone again for tourists. He is certain the Taba attack is the beginning of something bigger.
“I think now they are moving into the area of depriving Egypt of any potential to regain its tourist industry and I think this was the first attack,” he said, adding that it was a direct consequence of the civil war in Syria.
It was leaking trained, radicalised fighters into the rest of the Arab world and “upgrading” the abilities and militancy of disaffected groups.
“I imagine (this attack) will be followed by other steps and probably might expand beyond the Sinai area into Egypt proper.”
Gold too was worried that this signalled something bigger, something that could be harder to bring under control.
“The attack on foreign tourists in Taba is an escalation from what we have seen in the past three years. While I hesitate to generalise after one incident, it suggests at least some level of radicalisation among Sinai's armed groups,” Gold said.