CAIRO: In an exclusive and rare interview in daily state-owned Al-Ahram published on Tuesday, Interior Minister El-Habib El-Adly reiterated details of the investigation into the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Eve.
El-Adly announced for the first time that security authorities had arrested a cell of 19 suicide bombers linked to Al-Qaeda before carrying out attacks against places of worship in various governorates.
“The information we had before the attack led us to detain the group and seize weapons, ammunition and documents related to Al-Qaeda as well as maps of places of worship in Upper Egypt and Alexandria in their possession,” he said.
He said that Ahmed Lotfy Ibrahim, who is currently in police custody, was coordinating with a 19-member terrorist cell which was detained before the incident.
The lengthy interview, marking Police Day, focused mainly on the recent terrorist attack on Al-Qeddesine Church (The Church of the Two Saints) in Alexandria, which claimed the lives of 24 Christians and injured about 90 others including Muslims.
“Immediately after the attack, security forces rushed to search Ibrahim’s house,” El-Adly said.
“But nothing appeared [at that point] that was related to the attack. At the time, Ibrahim was out of the country to undergo a surgery in his ear,” he said.
El-Adly refused to unveil further details about the investigations. “What I can say is that the [latest] incident was a continuation of a series of external attempts that we recently foiled.”
Earlier this week, the Interior Ministry announced that the Islamic Army, a Palestinian Al-Qaeda-affiliate in the Gaza Strip, was responsible for the Alexandria church attack.
El-Adly said that the “Salafi jihadist” group was also behind the bombing in front of Al-Hussein Mosque that killed a French tourist and injured more than 20 people in February 2009.
El-Adly admitted that if Ibrahim had been arrested earlier, the operation could have been aborted.
“At least he could have directed us to the other suspects or given us information before the attack,” El-Adly said.
The interior minister did not mention the exact whereabouts of Ibrahim at the time of the attack.
“During the interrogation, Ibrahim unveiled in his own handwriting the truth about what happened and that he is a member of Al-Qaeda and is linked to the Islamic Army in Gaza,” El-Adly said.
“Ibrahim said that the Palestinian Islamic Army had asked him to monitor a number of houses of worship in some governorates including Fayoum and Alexandria and to do [a thorough mapping] of the church in Alexandria, “El-Adly added.
Ibrahim took pictures of the church from across the street and sent them to the terrorist group via the internet.
“After receiving the pictures, they asked Ibrahim to make arrangements for a car bomb, but he proposed a suicide operation,” El-Adly said.
He added that Ibrahim has no knowledge of the identities of the Alexandria attack perpetrators, even though he was in touch with the cell members.
“However, he knows that Palestinian Islamic Army recruits in Egypt must neither be Egyptian nor Palestinian,” El-Adly explained.
“The suicide bomber was killed in [the process],” he said. Yet he could not confirm how many were behind the attack.
El-Adly said that the attempted attacks did not only target Christians.
“Egypt is a target [on different levels]. Both Al-Azhar and the Orthodox Church are targets for their weight and distinction in the region.”
El-Adly denied that Al-Qaeda has a cell inside Egypt or across the border with Gaza.
“Yet there are attempts to [penetrate Egypt through] calibers trained abroad or to attract and recruit others online.”
“We are pretty sure that there are dozens in Gaza who are loyal to Al-Qaeda; some of them were previously involved in attempted terrorist attacks in Egypt,” El-Adly said.
“It is not a secret that Hamas itself has been in a conflict with members of the Palestinian Islamic Army who threaten the truce agreement by conducting operations inside Israel,” he added.
Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud imposed a publishing ban on details of the ongoing investigation into the church attack. The ban includes both local and foreign print and broadcast media.