JERUSALEM – The triple bomb blasts that killed 24 people and injured over 85 in the Egyptian resort town of Dahab were carried out by local Islamic extremist cells aided by and affiliated with al-Qaida, Israeli security officials believe.

Immediately following the blast, Egyptian officials were quick to leak to the media they did not suspect al-Qaida. Meanwhile, Egyptian intelligence officers have been telling some foreign counterparts the global jihad group is widely suspected in the attacks, but that they have been instructed to play down the possibility because Egypt has been claiming they successfully routed out al-Qaida from local positions in the Sinai, WND has learned.

The large explosions took place at Dahab’s Nelson Restaurant, the Aladdin Cafeteria and the Ghazala Supermarket in the city’s center, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said.

Witnesses at the blast said smoke pillars rose up from the town’s tourist center. Residents said they saw body parts and debris on the street after what appeared to be the first explosion at the restaurant.

The wounded reportedly included 20 foreigners, among them three Danes, three Britons, two Italians, two Germans, two French people, a South Korean, a Lebanese, a Palestinian, an American, an Israeli and an Australian.

The attackers struck a day after al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden issued a taped warning ordinary Western citizens had become legitimate targets of his terrorist organization because of their support of governments that he said were conducting a “crusader war against Islam.”

Dahab is a budget Read Sea beach and diving center popular with Israeli and European backpackers located on the Sinai Peninsula near Sharm El-Sheikh not far from Eilat at Israel’s border.

The attack came as Egyptians were celebrating the Coptic Christian Easter and Shem al-Nessim, the ancient spring holiday. The blasts ripped through the town shortly after nightfall when the streets would have been jammed with vacationers.

Immediately following the triple bombing, Egyptian security forces estimated the terrorists belonged to local terror cells not linked to international terror organizations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today also refused to attribute the bombing to global jihad. In a brief statement to the Egyptian state news agency MENA, Mubarak stressed the need to crack down on “those responsible for this wicked terrorist act, so that they pay the penalty by force of law.”

But Israeli security officials told WND they believe local cells in the Sinai run by Egyptian Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaida were responsible for the explosions.

Al-Qaida is believed to be recruiting members from among the Sinai Bedouin, particularly in and near Jabal Hilal in central Sinai. The Egyptian government recently informed Israeli and U.S. officials they successfully eradicated al-Qaida cells in the area. They said they moved large special units to the Sinai that were able to rid the region of terror bases.

Egypt also announced it initiated programs in recent months to create employment for the many unemployed Bedouins.

“Clearly this bombing shows the Egyptians have been unable to stop the al-Qaida cells from flourishing in the area,” said a security official.

Egyptian security officials are concerned the explosives used in the blast were smuggled in from Saudi Arabia or Jordan, security officials said. Information indicates the large quantities of explosives used in yesterday’s blast did not come from the many land mines known to be in the Sinai but likely from army material.

Israeli security officials told WND high explosives can “easily” be smuggled into the Sinai from Saudi Arabia. The area can be accessed by ferries or small private boats that cross the Suez Canal or the Read Sea gulf and land in deserted beach areas of the Sinai. The ferries are known to be sporadically checked by security officers, and Israel says the Egyptian Coast Guards do a “terrible job” at checking the waters near the vast Sinai beaches.

The Sinai is considered a desirable target for bin Laden, officials said. The area is ripe with Western and Israeli tourists. An attack there targets Egypt’s major tourism market.

Mubarak, whose regime upholds a peace treaty with Israel and is the beneficiary of large U.S. military aid packages, is detested by al-Qaida ideology, which seeks to replace so-called moderate regimes with Islamist leaderships.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a military offshoot, shares al-Qaida’s goals of establishing an Islamic theocracy.

Also, bin Laden tapes and al-Qaida communications have expresses increased desire to hit inside Israel the past year. While al-Qaida agents are suspected of infiltrating the Gaza Strip after Israel’s withdrawal from the area this past summer, and Israel recently arrested Palestinians planning a large-scale attack on behalf of the jihad group, al-Qaida has not yet been able to organize an attack inside the Jewish state.

“They are getting closer and closer. Part of the tactic is targeting Israel’s borders with attacks against the Sinai and in Amman, Jordan,” an official told WND.

There have been a string of attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula over the past 18 months, including deadly al-Qaida-style bombings in the Egyptian resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan in October 2004 and in Sharm el-Sheik in July. Last December, Amman was hit with a triple bombing. Groups working on behalf of Al-Qaida took responsibility for all those attacks.

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