In Egypt, Failed Attacks Bode Ill for Tourism Industry

4 MINS READJun 12, 2015 | 19:52 GMT
Militants Target Egypt's Tourism Industry
A tourist visits Karnak temple in Luxor, 700 kilometers (435 miles) south of Cairo, on June 11.

Jihadists have a long history of striking tourist sites in Egypt; such acts hurt the government by depriving it of much needed tourism revenue. Two recent attacks, though unsuccessful, suggest that jihadists are once again attempting to pursue this strategy.

Egyptian police in Luxor averted an armed assault June 10 near the Karnak temple complex, one of Egypt's most popular tourist destinations. The assault was interrupted when police confronted the attackers as they sat at a cafe awaiting a group of tourists. Upon being confronted, one of the assailants activated a suicide vest he was wearing, and the other two fired their guns at the police. One of the gunmen was fatally shot while the other was wounded and captured. The taxi driver who drove the men to the cafe reportedly informed authorities of their suspicious demeanor. A week earlier, two policemen assigned to tourist attractions were gunned down in a drive-by shooting on a road near the Great Pyramids in Giza, another highly popular tourist destination in Egypt.  

History of Attacks 

On Nov. 17, 1997, gunmen from Gamaah al-Islamiyah, the jihadist group led by the blind Sheikh Omar Ali Abdel Rahman, killed 62 tourists in what has been called the Luxor massacre. In response, the government cracked down hard on Gamaah al-Islamiyah and on another group called Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Thousands of suspected jihadists were arrested, and the operations of these groups were crippled. The public outcry against the Luxor attacks also led to a split of Gamaah al-Islamiyah, with the largest portion of the group, led by Mustafa Hamza, declaring a cease-fire and renouncing violence. The smaller, more radical faction led by Rifai Ahmed Taha called for a continuation of armed operations. Taha and his faction became aligned with al Qaeda, and in 1998, when Osama bin Laden proclaimed the formation of the "World Islamic Front," Taha was one of the signatories of the fatwa calling for jihad against Jews and crusaders. His group, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, later merged with al Qaeda, but by then Egyptian security forces had evicted most of these jihadists from Egypt.

The next wave of attacks against tourist interests in Egypt took place in the mid-2000s, when jihadists based in the Sinai Peninsula attacked several tourist resorts. In October 2004, they conducted an attack against three tourist resorts that killed 34 people – 31 at the Hilton hotel in Taba alone. In July 2005, the jihadists attacked tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh (with three devices). This attack killed 88 people, most of whom died at the Ghazala Gardens hotel. Then in April 2006, jihadists attacked tourist targets in Dahab with multiple devices, killing 23.

In February 2012, the brief kidnapping of two American women in the Sinai Peninsula hurt the Egyptian tourist industry, which was already reeling from the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011. The kidnapping occurred just two weeks after a shooting incident in Sharm el-Sheikh, in which a French tourist was killed and a German tourist was wounded. Chinese construction workers had been kidnapped in El Arish two days before the shooting.

Attacks against tourists resumed in February 2014, when Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a group that has since pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and is now known as the Wilayat Sinai, attacked a tourist bus with a suicide bomber. The attack killed the Egyptian bus driver, two South Korean tour guides and one South Korean tourist.

The unrest and violence in Egypt clearly have affected the country's tourism industry. According to the Egyptian State Statistics Ministry, tourism revenue decreased dramatically to roughly $6 billion in 2013 from nearly $12.5 billion in 2010. Revenue began to rebound in 2014, reaching $7.3 billion, but recent attacks are certain to hamper the recovery. 

The Likely Attack Planners

The use of a suicide bomber in the failed attack at Karnak would indicate that the attack was conducted by Wilayat Sinai rather than the al Qaeda-linked Ajnad Misr, which does not normally employ suicide operatives.

If Wilayat Sinai was indeed responsible for the attack, the group would appear to be expanding its operational reach. Egyptian authorities are pursuing the group heavily in Sinai, and several of the group's leaders have been killed. The incident at Karnak might indicate that the group has established a base of operations on the Egyptian mainland. The planned attack also could have been retaliation for the security operations in Sinai.

Although relatively few tourists visit Egypt during its oppressively hot summers, we will need to keep a close eye on further indications that Wilayat Sinai has established a base in the Egyptian mainland and that it is continuing its campaign against tourists. In the meantime, Egypt's tourism sector will continue to suffer, much to the detriment of the Egyptian economy. 

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