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III. Introduction

On the night of October 7, 2004, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, three explosions rocked the Gulf of `Aqaba tourist town of Taba and nearby tourist camp sites.2 The first and most deadly blast, apparently an explosive-rigged pick-up truck, occurred at the entrance to the Taba Hilton hotel at around 10 p.m., collapsing the hotel’s façade and lobby as well as front guest rooms. An estimated nine hundred guests and five hundred employees were inside at the time.3 The ten-floor 430-room hotel sits directly on the Egyptian-Israeli border and had been constructed while the Sinai was under Israeli military occupation.4

About an hour and a half later, another car-bombing shook the Moon Island campsite at Ras Shaitan (Devil’s Head), about fourty-five kilometers south of Taba along the Gulf of Aqaba coast, and a third blast occurred nearby without causing any damage.5 Taba is popular with Israeli tourists and vacationers, including Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry estimated that some twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Israelis were vacationing in Sinai at the time.6 The Egyptian government reported that thirty-four persons were killed, including thirteen Egyptians, ten Israelis, two Italians, and a Russian, and more than one hundred injured.7 

Approximately a week later, beginning around October 13, Egyptian security forces initiated a campaign of mass arrests that continued for many weeks, resulting in the detention of an estimated 2,500 to three thousand persons. These arrests continued well after a government announcement on October 25 that identified by name nine persons alleged to be responsible for the attacks, of whom two remained at large. As of late January 2005, hundreds if not thousands of those arrested remained in detention, their whereabouts unknown to families or defense lawyers. The authorities at no point have indicated on what, if any, charges these individuals were being held. There are numerous indications that many interrogations have been accompanied by torture and ill-treatment. 

Al-`Arish and Northern Sinai

Sinai is a sixty-one thousand square kilometer triangle-shaped peninsula bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal on the west, the Red Sea to the south, and the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the Gulf of Aqaba on the east. The interior of the peninsula is sparsely-settled desert and mountains for the most part. Most of the population of 219,000 is concentrated in the north, along the Mediterranean coast, particularly in and around al-`Arish, the major governing and commercial center.8 Taba, at the head of the Gulf of `Aqaba, and Sharm al-Shaikh, on the peninsula’s southern tip, are major tourist sites, catering mainly to Israelis (Taba) and Europeans (Sharm al-Shaikh). Numerous smaller tourist areas dot the “Riviera” along the Gulf of `Aqaba coastline. The tourism industry and the development of government services have drawn people from the Nile Delta and elsewhere in Egypt. Some four thousand or so of the long-time Bedouin residents still inhabit the interior.9

Northern Sinai was historically a major trade route, and the peninsula figured in several Israeli-Arab wars. Israel occupied the peninsula militarily from 1967 until 1982, when it was returned to Egypt under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

“Al-`Arish has the feel of a border town, it’s been a border town throughout its history,” one Western former long-time resident said. “People go along with whoever is the political authority as long as they are allowed to get on with their lives.”10 “Many Egyptians consider Sinai a backwater and the local population backwards,” an Egyptian journalist told Human Rights Watch. “The area is hard to control. Smuggling is common, insurgent types migrate there. Loyalty is first to the shaikh, not to the government or the imam [religious leader].”11 Many tribal leaders reportedly cooperate closely with Egyptian intelligence and security services. There is also a significant population of Palestinian origin, mainly families that moved into Sinai from the Gaza Strip while it was under Egyptian rule between 1949 and 1967.12

Government investigations

Initial speculation, by both Israeli and Egyptian officials, concerning who might be responsible had centered on al-Qaeda.13 Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, reportedly told an emergency cabinet meeting the following day that al-Qaeda was “most likely” behind the attacks, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said, “The type, the planning, the scope, the simultaneous attacks in a number of places, all this points to al-Qaeda”14 Egyptian investigators similarly expressed the view that attackers linked to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad movement until that group merged with al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri became Osama Bin Laden’s top deputy, had probably come from Jordan or Saudi Arabia.15

In the days immediately following the bombings, Egyptian security forces reportedly arrested dozens of Sinai Bedouin, including some who worked in local rock quarries and thus had access to explosives routinely used in such places.16

Hussain al-Qayyim, a shop owner in his late twenties from Shaikh Zuwaid, about thirty-five kilometers east of al-`Arish, told Human Rights Watch that the security forces “were confused at first. They’d arrest whole villages and release them the same day, day after day, village after village. The shaikhs said, ‘You can’t do this: tell us who you want, and we will bring them to you. Don’t violate our homes and our women.’”17 After a week or so, around the beginning of Ramadan, Hussein said, the authorities began to focus on specific categories of suspects, such as men whose first names were Mustafa, or men who drove red pick-up trucks. And “beards”—i.e., presumed adherents of Islamist congregations.18

On October 13, the semi-official daily al-Ahram reported that security forces had identified the three vehicles used as originating within Egypt and that the authorities were “tightening the noose” in the hunt for four suspects.19 Egyptian and Israeli investigators said they believed the bombings were carried out by a “previously unknown cell” that was “inspired” by al-Qaeda and directed by “experienced foreign militants,” and that the attack had “likely” been planned for a year or more.20

On October 25, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement announcing the arrest of five men, identifying them and four others as responsible for the attacks. The main perpetrator responsible for the Taba Hilton attack, the statement said, was Iyad Salah, a minibus driver of Palestinian origin from al-`Arish, in his twenties, who was killed in the explosion and identified by means of DNA analysis. According to the ministry statement, Salah and his accomplices stole the three cars, “equipped them with [explosive materials found in] leftover war material,” and rigged timing devices from washing machine parts. Salah, the statement said, “was involved in groups with a bad reputation and had previously committed several crimes”—including rape—but “had recently turned to religious extremism.”21 The statement said that “the bombings were a reaction to the deterioration of the situation in the occupied territories, and targeted Israelis staying in the hotel and at the camping ground.” A “senior Egyptian security officer” said that Salih had ties to a Palestinian Islamist group in Gaza, which he would not identify.22

According to the statement, Sulaiman Ahmad Salah Flaifil, thirty-nine-years-old, originally from Maidan, a Bedouin village outside al-`Arish, also died in the hotel explosion. The statement said that the attack was not intended to be a suicide bombing; rather, their deaths resulted from “a fault in the timing device.”

According to the Ministry of Interior statement, the five persons arrested were: Muhammad Ahmad al-Suwariki, “a stolen car dealer”; Ihab Mahmud `Id Musbah, an electric parts shop employee in al-`Arish who stole one of the cars; Hamdan Salama Salim al-Ahmar, a camp-ground owner from south Sinai who provided information to the attackers; Muhammad Jayyiz Sabah Hussain, an Irrigation Department employee in north Sinai who also owns an appliance repair shop and prepared the vehicles with the explosives and timers; and Muhammad `Abdullah Riba`a Sulaiman `Abdullah, who owns a metal workshop in al-`Arish and “checked” the explosives in the cars. The statement provided no information about the circumstances or times of their arrests.

The ministry statement also identified two suspects still at large who were allegedly responsible for the campground bombings: Muhammad Ahmad Salah Flaifil, a brother of one of those killed in the Taba blast, and Gum`an Gum`a Gum`an Tarabis.23

Aside from the reference to the DNA-based identification of the two alleged perpetrators killed in the Taba blast, the October 25 statement offered no information about how the government identified the nine suspects, how it had apprehended the five in custody, or where they were held. The government also did not address why it was sure that it had identified all those responsible, beyond the assertion of Cabinet spokesman Magdi Radi that “the detainees’ statements showed that there was no organization behind their attack.”24 Presidential spokesman Majid `Abd al-Fatah similarly emphasized that there was no evidence linking al-Qaeda to the attacks and that it was the act of an individual driven by the “injustice, aggression and despair” of the Palestine-Israel conflict.25

Despite the government’s claim that it had identified all the perpetrators, on February 1, 2005, police reportedly killed Muhammad `Abd al-Rahman Badawi, a previously unnamed suspect, in a shoot-out near Ras Sudr, the central Sinai town on the Gulf of Suez.26  On February 5, two additional suspects were killed in further clashes in that area.27

Mass Arrests

The October 25 statement made no reference to the large-scale arrests that security forces had begun about ten days earlier. Egyptian, regional, and international media contained scant reporting on this campaign or the ostensible reasons for it. The only coverage was that generated by Egyptian human rights organizations, who published reports in late November estimating that up to three thousand people had been rounded up, including persons taken as hostages to secure the surrender of wanted family members. The Egyptian groups also reported credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation.

Most of the arrests occurred after the Ministry of Interior statement of October 25. This would suggest either that the official statement did not fully reflect the investigation into the attacks, or that the government was using the occasion of the attacks to carry out a much broader crackdown against potential opponents, particularly those identified as having Islamist sympathies. The statement did identify the alleged ringleader, Iyad Salah, as a “religious extremist,” but stressed his Palestinian identity and purported motivation. “The motivation of the accident is clearly related to what’s going on in the occupied territories, because the planner was a Palestinian who was negatively motivated by what’s going on there,” Cabinet spokesman Magdi Radi said after the interior minister briefed that body.28 In an article published in early January, three months after the attacks, al-Hayat’s Cairo bureau chief reflected the official consensus when he wrote that the “incident” is “considered a one-act attack after it was proved that the perpetrators were not members of an Islamic organization but motivated by emotions resulting from what is happening to the Palestinian people at the Israeli army’s hands.”29

Several Egyptian journalists told Human Rights Watch that their efforts to elicit responses from the government to the claims of the human rights groups that thousands had been rounded up were fruitless. “Just read the statement [of October 25] was all they would say,” one journalist said.30

On February 4, 2005, the government announced that the Ministry of Interior had released ninety of the detainees arrested in connection with the investigation into the Taba attacks, and that more releases would follow.31

Reports of Egyptian Human Rights Groups

Several investigators with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) visited the al-`Arish area on November 1-2, 2004. Their report on the security forces’ response to the Taba attacks stated that mass arrests began on October 13 and that these included women and children detained “as pawns to force men to turn themselves in.”32

The arrests, according to the EOHR, were carried out by the State Security Investigation (SSI) and were arbitrary and random: “For example, during a police hunt for one of the wanted men who was said to be driving a red car more than nineteen owners of red cars were arrested.”33 The EOHR report included details of interviews with family members of eight detained persons; one former detainee testified that she had been threatened with electric shocks and had heard the screams of other detainees who had undergone torture.34 The EOHR estimated that the number detained between October 7 and November 1 was three thousand from al-`Arish and neighboring villages.35

On November 15-16, coinciding with the `Id al-Fitr celebration of the end of Ramadan, a delegation of activists representing Hisham Mubarak Law Center (Ahmad Seif al-Islam Hamad), the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (Magda Adly), and the Egyptian Association against Torture (Laila Soueif, Aida Seif al-Dawla) visited al-`Arish and the town of Shaikh Zuwaid, close to Egyptian Rafah. At a press conference in Cairo on November 24, and by e-mail, they made available testimonies they had taken in interviews with residents.36 The persons whose testimonies were presented in this report were not identified by name, but provided accounts of arbitrary arrests and detention as well as first-hand testimonies of torture at the hands of SSI officials in al-`Arish, Rafah, and the headquarters in the Lazughli district of Cairo. The report also noted that an official responsible for security in Sinai had told a meeting of heads of tribes and political notables that the number of arrests was around 2,500.

The Committee for the Defense of Freedoms of the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate released a report in mid-January 2005 that contained summary testimonies of ten persons who, the committee alleged, had been the victims of arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment.37

The findings of the EOHR report, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Nadim Center report, and the Lawyers’ Syndicate report are consistent with one another and with Human Rights Watch’s findings regarding large-scale arrests, arbitrary detention, and torture and ill-treatment during interrogation.


Human Rights Watch visited al-`Arish and its environs on December 7 – 8 and spoke with two dozen persons who were themselves detained or who witnessed the arrest of one or more family members during the month of Ramadan, which ran from October 16 to November 14. Human Rights Watch carried out the investigation with the participation and assistance of Ahmad Seif al-Islam, the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and Aida Seif al-Dawla, chair of the Egyptian Association against Torture and a physician working with the Nadim Center. Human Rights Watch also met with victims and witnesses who traveled to Cairo on December 4 and 5, and spoke with Egyptian journalists and analysts who had been following these developments.38

These interviews took place, except where noted below, in a separate room with only the person being interviewed and the representatives of Human Rights Watch, the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, and the Egyptian Association against Torture present. The interviews provided information consistent with the findings of the EOHR and the delegation representing the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Nadim Center, and the Egyptian Association against Torture—namely, that the response of Egypt’s SSI security force has been characterized by mass arbitrary arrests and widespread torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

Most persons who spoke with Human Rights Watch did so on the condition that neither their names nor those of their detained relatives be made public or provided to the authorities. 

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Egypt/Israel: Attacks on Civilians Are Unjustifiable Crimes,” October 12, 2004, at

[3] Matthew Gutman, “IDF concludes Sinai rescue operation – 13 Israelis among 32 bombing victims,” Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005].

[4] Joel Leyden, “Exodus 2004. Thousands Enter Israel after Terror Attacks,” Israel News Agency, October 8, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]. Israel had claimed that the international border placed Taba and the hotel inside Israel, but this claim was rejected by international arbitrators and the area, with the hotel, was returned to Egypt in March 1989. 

[5] “Terror bombings hit Taba and Ras a-Satan in Sinai,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005].

[6]  Joel Leyden, “Exodus 2004. Thousands Enter Israel after Terror Attacks,” Israel News Agency, October 8, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005].

[7] “Bedouins detained over Sinai attacks,”, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]. There appears to be no final, official account of the number and nationalities of those killed and injured. Israeli Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon reportedly told the Israeli cabinet on October 10 that thirteen Israelis, six Egyptians, and fourteen others were killed (Matthew Gutman, “IDF concludes Sinai rescue operation – 13 Israelis among 32 bombing victims,” Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]). A Washington Post  story published on October 23 cited the Associated Press as saying that eleven Israelis, eight Egyptians, one Russian, two Italians, and twelve others were killed (Scott Wilson and Molly Moore, “Egypt Inquiry Slowed by Lack of Evidence,” Washington Post, October 23, 2004, p. A17). An Egyptian journalist, several weeks after the attacks, wrote that the injured were mostly Israelis and numbered 159 (Amira Howeidy, “Explosive reactions,” al-Ahram Weekly. October 28-November 3, 2004 [retrieved January 7, 2005]). 

[8] Egyptian government statistics, found at

[9] “Bedouin man confesses to selling explosives; Palestinian militant involvement eyed in Egypt resort blasts,” Associated Press, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 12, 2005].

[10] E-mail communication to Human Rights Watch, January 10, 2005.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Cairo, December 11, 2004.

[12] There are no official figures on the Palestinian population in Sinai. The estimate for the whole of Egypt—there are substantial communities in Cairo and elsewhere as well—range from fifty-three thousand to seventy thousand (Amira Howeidy, “Explosive reactions,” Al-Ahram Weekly. October 28-November 3, 2004 [retrieved January 7, 2005]). An Israeli journalist, commenting on the Taba bombings, wrote that “Hamas activists continued to move about unhampered in Sinai,” indicating that the transit is not primarily through the Palestinian tunnels underneath the border with Egypt but from Lebanon to al-`Arish by sea and from Sudan via the Red Sea. See Amos Harel, “Living on burrowed time,” Ha’aretz, December 17, 2004.

[13] Four previously unknown groups—the World Islamist Group, the Islamic Tawhid Brigade, Muhammad’s Army Group, and the `Abdullah `Azzam Brigades—claimed responsibility, but these claims have received little credence. See for example Noha El-Hennawy, “Death in the Sinai,” Egypt Today, November 9, 2004 [retrieved December 2, 2004].

[14] Sarah el-Deeb, “Egypt detains Bedouin tribesmen in Sinai terror attacks that killed at least 33,” Associated Press, October 9, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]; Evan Osnos, “Israel says Al Qaeda top suspect in bombings,” Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005].

[15] Sarah el-Deeb, “Egypt detains Bedouin tribesmen in Sinai terror attacks that killed at least 33,” Associated Press, October 9, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]. 

[16] Some reports—See, for example, Scott Wilson and Molly Moore, “Egypt Inquiry Slowed by Lack of Evidence,” Washington Post, October 23, 2004, p. A17—suggested the number may have been in the low twenties, while others suggested that it was considerably higher. Matthew Gutman (“IDF concludes Sinai rescue operation – 13 Israelis among 32 bombing victims,” Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005]) wrote two days after the attacks that “Egyptian authorities have detained 150 suspects, mostly Beduin.”  

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Hussain al-Qayyim, Cairo, December 7, 2004.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Hussain al-Qayyim, Cairo, December 4, 2004.

[19] “The search for the four terrorists who executed the Taba blasts; the three vehicles used were from within Egypt,” Al-Ahram, October 13, 2004 (in Arabic).

[20] Scott Wilson and Molly Moore, “Egypt Inquiry Slowed by Lack of Evidence,” Washington Post, October 23, 2004, p. A17.

[21] Ministry of Interior statement (in Arabic) provided to Human Rights Watch by an Egyptian journalist by e-mail, December 5, 2004. This translation is from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), “Arish…random arrests, detention and torture: Stop the tragedy,” Cairo, November 24, 2004. The Ministry statement said that among Salah’s crimes was “the rape of a girl in a car he was driving.”

[22] Salah Nasrawi, “Egypt announces arrest of Sinai plotters,” Associated Press, October 25, 2004 [retrieved December 2, 2004].

[23] Ministry of Interior statement. In some of the press reports following the early February clashes with suspects (see below), Gum`an Tarabis was identified as Hamad Gum`a.

[24] Dan Murphy, “Palestinian grievances behind Egypt attack,” Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005).

[25] Amira Howeidy, “Explosive reactions,” al-Ahram Weekly. October 28-November 3, 2004 [retrieved January 7, 2005].

[26] “Deadly clash in Sinai peninsula,” BBC News, February 1, 2005,

[27] Sarah el-Deeb, “Bedouins lead Egypt’s hunt for militants,” Associated Press, February 6, 2005 [retrieved February 7, 2005]. According to this account, one of those slain was Gum`an Gum`a Gum`an Tarabis, previously identified as a suspect; the other could not be identified owing to the severity of his wounds.

[28] Dan Murphy, “Palestinian grievances behind Egypt attack,” Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2004 [retrieved January 4, 2005).

[29] Muhammad Salah, “Secrets of a quarter of a century of their activities: Muntassir al-Zayyat in a new book on Islamic Groups defeat,” al-Hayat, January 6, 2005, translated by BBC Monitoring Middle East, January 9, 2005 [retrieved January 10, 2005]. 

[30] Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld. Cairo, December 5, 2004.

[31] Mahir Isma`il, “Al-ifraj `an 90 min al-mo`qtali Sina’ [Release of 90 of the Sinai Detainees],” al-Misri al-Yawm, February 5, 2005, p. 1.

[32] Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, “Arish…random arrests, detention and torture: Stop the tragedy,” (November 24, 2004), p. 5 (hereafter cited as EOHR report).

[33] EOHR report, p. 5.

[34] Testimony of the wife of Ahmad Hamdan `Abdullah Abu Shita, EOHR report, pp. 8-9.

[35] EOHR report, p. 11-12. The report appended a list of seventy-six detained individuals by name.

[36] “Thus spoke the people of North Sinai: Testimonies of State Security Intelligence Victims in Arish and the city of Sheikh Zoayyed,” Report of a fact-finding visit undertaken by the Egyptian Association against Torture (Leila Soueif, Aida Seif al-Dawla), Hisham Mubarak Law Center (Ahmed Seif al-Islam Hamad), Al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (Magda Adl), 15-17 November 2004 (Cairo, November 24, 2004).

[37] “We will take the torturers to court,” Report [in Arabic] of the fact-finding mission of the Committee for the Defense of Freedoms of the Lawyers Syndicate regarding the security operation in the Sinai (Cairo, January 17, 2005). On January 10, lawyers reportedly boycotted the al-`Arish courts to protest the refusal of the local public prosecutor to accept a petition by the Lawyers Syndicate to investigate the arrests and detentions 

[38] The persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch had not, with one exception, previously been interviewed by the Egyptian human rights organizations in November. In the case of Hamid Batrawi (see below), he had testified earlier regarding the detention of members of his family. His own arrest and torture, the subject of his testimony in this report, occurred after the mid-November interview. 

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