A close call in Luxor, but this is not the first time

My first thought when I heard about this week’s jihadist attack on tourists at temple sites in Luxor was the infamous Luxor massacre in Nov. 1997, when 62 people (nearly all tourists) were gunned down or butchered with machetes by Islamist terrorists.

However, the differences between the two attacks are extraordinary. The 1997 massacre was a sophisticated operation. Six jihadists appeared at Queen Hatsheput’s Temple disguised as Egyptian security forces, and as such were openly armed with automatic weapons. They killed two unsuspecting armed guards at the site, then advanced into the temple where a large group of tourists was effectively trapped and murdered.

This week’s aborted attempt may herald the beginning of a more murderous phase of Islamist warfare against both the Egyptian state and society

Abdallah Schleifer

This week’s operation was far from sophisticated. Three jihadists were reportedly waiting at a cafe near a parking lot, and when about 100 or more tourists disembarked from a bus the jihadists tried to join the group.

However, they had already aroused the suspicion of Egyptian policemen in the parking lot, and when challenged before they could reach the tourists, one of the terrorists apparently blew himself up while the other two exchanged gunfire with the police. The second terrorist was killed and the third seriously wounded. A few temple staff and police were reportedly wounded. Miraculously, none of the tourists were killed or injured.

Hardened veterans

The men who carried out the 1997 massacre were hardened veterans of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya guerrilla force, which had its origins as a predominantly Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islamist university student movement in the early and mid-1970s during a brief honeymoon between Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat and the Brotherhood.

However, early on Al-Gama’a branches in Upper Egypt were taken over by an already clandestine Islamic Jihad group, disciples of the late Sayid Qutb, the most radical thinker in the late 1950s Brotherhood. They had long since broken off from the Brotherhood, and would go on to wage guerrilla warfare against the state through the early 1990s.

However, by the summer of 1997 Al-Gama’a had been so weakened in combat and by massive security sweeps that their leaders in prison declared an end to armed struggle. Al-Gama’a leaders who had fled Egypt condemned this development and ordered the Luxur massacre in a desperate attempt to subvert the ceasefire. It not only failed to do so, but the atrocity alienated whatever limited popular support Al-Gama’a had enjoyed.

This week’s attack was amateurish in comparison. It does not match the deadly operational style of the Sinai jihadists who have been fighting Egyptian security and army forces, and most recently have declared adherence to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On the other hand, suspected elements of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth have engaged in sporadic terrorist attacks in and around Cairo, the Delta and Upper Egypt, targeting individual Egyptian policemen manning checkpoints, or unmanned power pylons and neighborhood electricity transmission units.


Tourists have been left alone until now, and the industry has been slowly recovering this past year from the slump set off by the chaos that characterized Egypt in the wake of the fall former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

However, a recent declaration - the “Call of Egypt” - signed by 150 so-called “Muslim scholars” from all parts of the Muslim world, calls for “retribution” against “all rulers, judges, officers, soldiers, muftis, journalists and politicians” who have participated in the repression of the Brotherhood, or have “incited” in favor of the repression. Needless to say, such a call is abhorrent.

So it is quite conceivable that while the memory of the 1997 Luxor massacre, which must haunt older generations of Egyptians, was a death-throes act that signalled the end of a terrorist insurgency, this week’s aborted attempt may herald the beginning of a more murderous phase of Islamist warfare against both the Egyptian state and society.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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