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WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida is sending a message that it is still in business with the bombings in London and Egypt, say terrorism experts in the U.S. and abroad.
The pattern of attacks, they say, and the similarity in methods suggest Osama bin Laden or his inner circle were behind the attacks.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, where the death toll rose to 90 people, attention centered on an al-Qaida affiliate blamed for a similar attack last October at Taba, another Red Sea resort. In London, where 52 people were killed in the subway and on a bus, police have identified three of the four presumed suicide bombers as British natives with suspected connections to Pakistani radicals.
Intelligence officials and terrorist experts said they suspect that bin Laden or his lieutenants may have directed both operations.
The analysis by diverse sources in the U.S. and abroad suggest the Bush administration’s assessments that al-Qaida is on the run may be optimistic.
Some senior U.S. officials have argued that bin Laden has been effectively bottled up since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and question whether al-Qaida still has the ability to plan major operations such as the Sept. 11 attacks.
In April, the State Department concluded in its annual report on terrorist activity around the world that al-Qaida had been supplanted as the biggest threat by unaffiliated local groups of Islamic radicals acting on their own. The pattern of attacks in 2004, the report said, illustrates “what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al-Qaida organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al-Qaida itself.”
One U.S.-based intelligence analyst said the fingerprints of al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are all over the attack in Egypt. Al-Zawahiri is known to be obsessed with toppling President Hosni Mubarak in the largest Arab country.
The latest bomb attack ripped an upscale hotel, a local market and a parking lot beginning shortly after 1 a.m., a synchronized series of blasts that witnesses and the authorities said had occurred about five minutes apart.
Citing police officials, Reuters reported that 35 people had been arrested, though it was not clear if they were suspected of close ties to the bombers or whether it was part of a general roundup.
Several hours after the bombings an extremist group claimed responsibility on an Islamic website. The group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades of al-Qaida in Syria and Egypt, also claimed to have carried out a similar series of bombings that killed 34 people last October at and near the resort town of Taba. Within hours, a second group, which identified itself as the Holy Warriors of Egypt, claimed responsibility in a fax to newspapers and gave the names of five people it identified as the bombers. Neither claim could be verified.
“This cowardly, criminal act is aimed at undermining Egypt’s security and stability and harming its people and its guests,” said Mubarak. “This will only increase our determination in chasing terrorism.”
The dead and injured included significant numbers of European tourists and Egyptians, with at least 240 people wounded, said Essam Sharif, director of emergency medicine in Sharm el-Sheik. The foreign casualties included Spaniards, British, French and Italians, as well as Qataris and Kuwaitis.