Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mission aborted

The Ministry of Interior links February's attack in Khan Al-Khalili to Al-Qaeda, reports Jailan Halawi

On Sunday news that Al-Qaeda militants had been planning terrorist attacks in Egypt and France made headlines in Egypt's press. It followed an earlier announcement, made a week earlier by Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab, that security forces had arrested suspects believed to be behind the 22 February bombings in Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili bazaar which left a 17-year-old French girl dead and 24 others wounded. Few at the time of Shehab's announcement could have predicted that the subsequent investigation would lead to Al-Qaeda.

Initial reports stated only that the detainees included two women and that the suspects would be referred to state security prosecutors "in a matter of days". Given that the investigation into the Khan Al-Khalili explosion, in the square before the Al-Hussein Mosque, described the explosive device as "rudimentary", it was assumed the attack, like earlier ones, was the work of amateurs, the information on how to build a bomb probably accessed via some terrorist-affiliated website.

Within a week such a sanguine view was blown out of the water. The Ministry of Interior announced not just the referral of suspects to prosecution but its success in foiling attempts by Al-Qaeda, and by another group dubbed the Palestinian Islamic Army, from carrying out attacks in Egypt and France. Reports published on Sunday, 24 May, also contained news of the arrest of seven more people suspected of links with the cell responsible for the Khan Al-Khalili bombing. The suspects were identified by the Ministry of Interior as a French woman of Albanian origin, a British national of Egyptian descent, two Palestinians, a Belgian national of Tunisian descent and two Egyptians.

Some of the detained, said the Ministry of Interior, had revealed they had been planning an attack in France. The ministry also named a third group, the Palestinian Islamic Army, as part of the plot though it was unclear whether this is the name under which the alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates worked or whether it is an independent group.

The February bombing, revealed the ministry, was planned by two Egyptian nationals, Mohamed Seddik and Khaled Mustafa, both of whom remain at large. Seddik and Mustafa are accused of sending recruits to Gaza via tunnels that cross the border, where they received paramilitary training before returning to Egypt. Investigations further revealed that the Egypt-based cell managed to recruit foreign members who then entered the country under the pretext of attending educational courses.

The aim of the cell, claimed security forces, was to attack tourist targets, mainly in the Sinai Peninsula. The two women -- one French, the other Egyptian -- were used to gather information and transport funds and ammunition between the groups involved in the plot. But it was not just Egypt they aimed to target. According to reports, the Belgian suspect has revealed that he was instructed to return home, contact other Al-Qaeda affiliates there, and then travel on to France in order to launch attacks there.

The Ministry of Interior has intensified its search for the remaining suspects, increasing surveillance at all of Egypt's ports of entry.

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