Jihadists change tactics - target Egypt Achilles heel: analysts

2015-06-11 21:10

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Cairo - Wednesday's narrowly avoided massacre of tourists at Egypt's famed Karnak temple signalled a strategic change in a jihadist war on a government heavily reliant on tourism and foreign investment, analysts said.

Since the army toppled Islamist president Mohammed Morsi two years ago and the bloody crackdown on his supporters that followed, jihadists have carried out a relentless wave of bombings and attacks on security forces.

But that campaign, mostly bombings in the Sinai Peninsula, has failed to weaken the government, while oil-rich Gulf states pour billions of dollars into Cairo's coffers and foreign companies promise lucrative investments.

Police said they averted a massacre after foiling a suicide bombing and gun attack on one of Egypt's most popular ancient attractions, in the first incident in more than a year targeting tourists.

In February 2014, Egypt's main jihadist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed a suicide bombing on a tour bus in the Sinai that killed three South Koreans and their Egyptian driver.

No one has claimed Wednesday's attack, but those militants have since pledged allegiance to ISIS and promised to wage "economic war" in Egypt, and analysts are referring to "jihadist elements".

Two attackers died on Wednesday and a third was seriously wounded outside the ancient temple in Luxor, a popular site close to the famed Valley of the Kings, police said.

Two civilians and two policemen were wounded in a shoot-out.

But with 600 visitors at the site and the assailants armed to the teeth, the carnage could have approached that of recent attacks that killed 148 students in Kenya and 21 tourists at a Tunis museum.

"If they had managed to enter the temple, it would have been a massacre," said a police general.

Economic war

Zack Gold of the American Security Project think-tank said "such events are likely to worry the international community at a time that tourists are starting to return to places like Cairo and Luxor".

Egypt's tourism revenues in 2014 soared 20% from a year earlier, as a sector accounting for a 10th of gross domestic product and almost 20% of foreign currency reserves bounced back from the 2011 revolution.

Mathieu Guidere, professor of Arab geopolitics at France's University of Toulouse, said the Karnak incident indicated a change in strategy in jihadists' selection of targets.

The aim is "to weaken the Egyptian economy by destroying the tourism industry" and to have "the maximum media impact," as attacks on domestic targets were not drawing international attention, he said.

Mohammed al-Zayat of Cairo's Regional Centre for Strategic Studies said the aim is to "show that the country is not safe, at a time when the [tourism] sector is making a recovery".

Antiquities Minister Mamduh al-Damati, in an interview with AFP, acknowledged that "terrorism is starting to target tourist sites".

The authorities have tightened security at archaeological sites, and Egypt's rich Pharaonic heritage is being peppered with surveillance cameras, he said.

But Guidere said "there is not a lot you can do against suicide attacks.

"The key is neither military nor security, but rather political and social," in the face of militants who claim to be avenging state repression, he said.

Since Morsi's ouster, hundreds of his supporters have faced a brutal government crackdown that has left more than 1 400 killed in street protests and more than 40 000 jailed, Human Rights Watch says.

Hundreds of people have also been sentenced to death after speedy mass trials described by the UN as "unprecedented in recent history".

Read more on:    hrw  |  isis  |  egypt  |  north africa

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