National Geographic : 2009 Mar
• Reaching El Arish, home of most of the men who rehearsed their plan in the desert, isn t easy. All roads connecting south Sinai to the north are considered "security roads" and o -limits to visitors. I bypassed them by driving up the west side of the peninsula, giving Cairo as my destination at police check- points, joining a line to ride a ferry across the Suez Canal to the capital, then instead veering away toward the Mediterranean coast. e north feels separate in more ways than bureaucratic; even the landscape bears no resemblance to the high, pink mountains of the south. Sand dunes roll into the distance, reclaiming roadways and stretching all perspec- tive at eye level. Everything seems far away in northern Sinai. The Egyptian government once saw much promise in the north coast. A generation ago El Arish shone like a jewel on the Mediterra- nean, with wide beaches and rows of palm trees that produced eshy dates. e city received the state s favor, and good schools grew up among resorts and businesses. Geographically El Arish is better suited than the south for touristic de- velopment, with its at topography easing into sandy beaches and shallow seas, rather than steep mountains crashing down to coral reef. But two decades ago the explosion of south- ern development drew all resources away from the north. And unrest in Gaza, just 30 miles away, drove out the last foreign tourists. Entering El Arish now feels like attending a spooked dinner party, with plates of half- nished food and empty chairs where the guests should be. I passed a shuttered tourism o ce and a boulevard of abandoned resorts that faced the Mediterranean. In the city center young men stood on sidewalks, gazing into the streets, as though perpetually awaiting something. According to one study, more than nine out of ten people age 20 to 30 have no full-time job, much less any hope of obtaining a work permit for resorts in the south. A er a short time in El Arish, following weeks elsewhere in Egypt, something felt out of place: ere seemed to be no women. In other parts of Sinai any social divisions relate to class and tradition, not religion, and women appear in public as o en as men. But El Arish has dri ed into a brand of Islamic conservatism that keeps women mostly at home and almost always cov- ered. is is the environment in which Iyad Salah recruited his Bedouin conspirators, including the Flay l brothers, Muhammad and Suleiman. I found the Flay l home in a poor village on the outskirts of El Arish. A boy ran to bring out elderly Sheikh Ahmed Flay l, who blinked as he entered the sun-blanched courtyard. He did not sit or pour tea, which broke all Bedouin protocol. A er a long look, he asked, "Are you here to ask about my dead sons?" I was. The sheikh sighed and stared out toward the never ending dunes. People in town talked about how his sons had grown long beards and retreated to the desert for their prayers instead of joining their neighbors in the mosque. e sheikh had disowned his sons. At last he said, " ey died." And he withdrew with no further word. There were two other bombs that October evening. In Nuweiba, Asser El Badrawy stood on the balcony of his hotel, look- ing north along the coast toward a backpackers camp. at s when he saw a great blast rise from the campground. Moments passed, and the sound of the explosion arrived; below, his guests on the beach---almost all Israeli---turned to see a small mushroom cloud forming over the blast site. A nuclear bomb, El Badrawy thought. e Sinai enjoyed a reputation as a peaceful place, so the sight of the cloud made no sense. And in the irrationality of the moment he ran to his bathroom and hid, waiting for a blast wave that didn t arrive. On the road outside the camp, a man in a car had tried to drive in but had been startled at the last moment by the appearance of a guard with a lantern. He hastily backed up the car and got stuck in a sand dune. en he walked away and detonated the car by remote control. At a nearby camp, another driver parked near Deep in the desert a group of men gathered with mobile phones, washing machine timers, gas cylinders, and TNT.