Sunday, February 23, 2014

Egypt: Update--February 16 Detonation In/Near Tour Bus Claims Lives of Two South Koreans, Egyptian Driver, Injury to Nine Others

According to Reuters, an IED (improvised explosive device) in or near a tourist bus transporting up to 30 South Korean tourists from St. Catherine's Monastery to nearby Israel detonated on Sunday (February 16), killing at least two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver. Also, nine South Korean tourists were also injured in the attack on the bus.

Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists based in the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks on security forces since army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry confirmed that two of its nationals were killed and nine others wounded. It said 32 South Koreans were on the tour bus at the time and that the tourists were Christians from the same church in South Korea.

In 2004, a bombing at the Sinai resort of Taba killed 34 people, including Israeli tourists.

COMMENT: State television depicted a photograph of the bus, its windows smashed and the roof partially torn off. Black smoke billowed from the site of the detonation on a palm tree-lined boulevard.

A number of foreign governments have already banned their nationals from traveling in the Sinai. 

Seemingly, the South Korean Christians apparently did not get the word or their Foreign Ministry simply failed to release its own travel warning on travel to the Sinai.

By killing two South Koreans near one of Egypt’s biggest resorts,  Islamist militants behind the attack have undermined Egyptian government assurances that foreigners face no threat from the turmoil that has shaken the country since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The Islamist group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdi, claimed responsibility for the bombing and has told tourists to leave Egypt, threatening to attack any who are still in the country after Thursday (February 20). This group has everything to gain and nothing to lose in adhering to its promise.

Georges Colson, chairman of French travel agency federation SNAV, said his organization was advising its clients to choose alternative destinations.

Tour operators had been hoping that Egyptian tourism would recover after the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and the killing of hundreds of his supporters, as tourism declined some 41% last year. 

European travel companies halted holidays to popular Red Sea resorts like Hurghada, Sharm El-Sheikh and Marsa Alam after the bloodshed that followed Morsi’s removal in July.

Nevertheless, tour operators are very much like tourists. At the slightest sign of stability, albeit fleeting, tour operators purge forward thinking that all is well without as much as consulting reputable threat analysts who follow terrorist trends on a daily basis.

In contrast, famed tourist sites closer to Egypt’s towns and cities, the Pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, have seen only a trickle of visitors since 2011, to the dismay of Nile cruise operators and impoverished trinket sellers who rely on sparse trade.

It is my strong conviction that Egyptians everywhere stop listening to their prejudiced and biased government and carefully read and study the frequent and regular travel warnings issued by the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, etc.

Nevertheless, extremists in the Sinai read the same foreign government travel warnings AND deliberately select regions that are deemed "safe," as that is precisely where the they will select their next target!

It is presumptuous to think that terrorists will not engage in effective research. They are experts at doing so, just as they carefully assessed the vulnerabilities of commercial aviation in the US on September 11, 2011.  Subsequently, the US was blamed for limiting its own imagination

The ultimatum to all tourists from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis should be taken seriously. Just when you think that such groups will not reach beyond their sphere of influence, they will surprise you elsewhere with an attack where it is least expected.

In Hurghada, hundreds of miles south of Sinai on the Egyptian mainland, boat and beach resort manager Nasser Mazen said he is worried, he told REUTERS:

“At the moment we only work at 25% capacity of what we would normally do in February,” he said. “We hope that these attacks will stop. Tourists see what’s happening in Egypt in the media and postpone their travel to next year or later.”

Marriott, Hilton and Accor have also stepped up security at their hotels in Sinai. Yet, please my question to such properties is:

"Unless you are armed commensurate with experienced, professional terrorists, what value is 'stepping up security' really going to have against skilled extremists?"

Even Egypt's own security forces can't prevent terrorist attacks on its own soil.

Days after the Taba attack, Russia’s tour operators' association has reported a fall in bookings and Germany’s travel association DRV is bracing for continuing bad news. “Travel from Germany has simply not recovered since the Arab Spring and any further destabilization only makes guests more wary,” said DRV president Juergen Buechy.

Tourists already in the big Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Shiekh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam seemed untroubled by the latest travel warnings, tour operators and associations report.

Yet, one mass-casualty bombing in any of the Red Sea resorts could turn those properties into a wasteland, not to mention the political ramifications of not reading the "tea leaves" correctly.

I will say it again. Every time tour operators follow their own instincts and no one else's, people often die, as in the case of a British expat and his New Zealander girlfriend who were summarily shot and killed execution-style in Libya on December 2, 2013, while the couple enjoyed each other’s company during a romantic picnic.