CAIRO – A deadly suicide bombing that hit a bus of South Korean Christians visiting biblical sites in Egypt and Israel has raised fears that Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula are turning to target foreign tourists, a potential new blow to a struggling industry vital to Egypt’s economy.
Egypt’s slumping tourism is already suffering from three years of political turmoil. Last year saw the fewest visitors since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The new attack was the first targeting foreign tourists in the Sinai in nearly a decade. It threatens a region that has kept Egypt’s tourism alive even during the downturn: the beach resorts of the Red Sea. Those resorts on Sinai’s eastern and southern coasts, a favorite of divers and Europeans escaping the winter, had seemed a world away from the political unrest in the Nile Valley, and even from the wave of Islamic militant violence on the Sinai’s northern Mediterranean coast.
Militants have waged a campaign of bombings and shootings targeting the military and police forces since the army ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer. Their nascent insurgency began in northern Sinai, but has struck with increasing frequency in Cairo and other cities.
The Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis said Tuesday that the bombing in the Red Sea resort of Taba, on the border with Israel, was carried out by one of its fighters, and threatened more strikes against economic targets.
The al-Qaida-inspired group, based in the Sinai, has deployed several suicide bombers in attacks on police, as well as in a failed attempt to assassinate the interior minister in September.
The bus, carrying more than 30 South Korean Christians, their Egyptian guide and an Egyptian driver, was waiting to cross into Israel, the next stage in a tour of biblical sites that took them earlier to Sinai’s ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery.
The driver and two South Koreans got out of the bus and checked the cargo hold. As they were reboarding, the suicide bomber pushed through the open door into the bus and detonated his explosives. The blast tore apart the bus, killing the driver and three South Koreans and wounding at least a dozen more tourists.
It was not immediately known if Sunday’s attack marked the start of a militant campaign against tourism. Egypt’s militants targeted tourists in the 1990s, trying to cripple the economy as they waged an insurgency to topple Mubarak’s government. Security forces ruthlessly crushed the campaign by the end of the decade.
The last major attacks on tourists came in a string of militant bombings against resorts in southern Sinai — including in Taba — between 2004 and 2006, killing about 120 people. But the tourism industry quickly rebounded.