ISMAILIYA, Egypt, AP – Terror attacks that killed nearly 100 people at several Sinai tourist resorts in the past two years were carried out by a militant group calling itself “Tawhid and Jihad,” a name used by al-Qaeda-linked groups elsewhere, Egyptian prosecutors said Sunday.
The Egyptian government has said the militants who carried out the suicide bombings were locals without international connections, though Israeli security officials have said they suspect an al-Qaeda hand in the attacks.
The name, announced for the first time Sunday at the trial of 15 militants suspected in the bombings, could suggest the group had sympathies with al-Qaeda, if not operational links.
The militants are accused of bombings in the resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, near the Israeli border, that killed 34 people in October 2004. Prosecutors say the same group was also involved in a July 23 suicide attack in the resort of Sharm el-Sheik, which killed at least 64 people.
Prosecutor Hisham Badawi said the militants “formed a terrorist organization … which carried out the explosions.” He did not say if the group was believed to have links to al-Qaeda.
The trial, which has been going on since July 2, had only two defendants before Sunday’s court session, when the prosecution dramatically reshuffled its case, adding 13 more defendants. Prosecutors said the new defendants were also members of the group and were arrested after the Sharm el-Sheik bombings.
One of the defendants, Younis Mohammed Mahmoud Elian, told the judge that he and his co-defendants “were subjected to severe torture” to extract confessions. The trial was adjourned until May 27, and the judge ordered the defendants examined for signs of torture.
The bombings prompted security sweeps in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in which thousands were reportedly arrested. Some of those subsequently released have also complained of torture.
When the first two defendants were brought to trial in July, prosecutors said the perpetrators of the Taba attack did not belong to a terror group but were reacting to Israel’s policies with the Palestinians. But when the Sharm el-Sheik attacks occurred, security forces began talking of a wider Islamic militant group, though they denied any al-Qaeda ties.
“Tawhid and Jihad” — Arabic for “Monotheism and Holy War” — was the name used by the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most notorious militant leader in Iraq. His group is now named Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Other groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda ideology have used “tawhid” in their names in the past.
A statement signed by a group calling itself Egyptian Tawhid and Jihad claimed responsibility for the Sharm el-Sheik bombing, saying it acted on orders from Osama bin Laden. But it was one of several conflicting claims by different groups at the time.
Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic militants, said the confusion in the case makes it hard to judge whether the group’s name denotes any al-Qaeda ties.
“The prosecution all along has been decisively denying that the defendants belonged to al-Qaeda or any external group. They don’t tell us where all these charges and new developments come from,” he said.