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Luxor, 20 Years Since Birth Of Modern Jihadism

In the gruesome attack in Egypt on Nov. 17, 1997, three key elements came together that have driven Islamic terrorism over the past two decades.

A 2010 photo of Luxor
A 2010 photo of Luxor
Antonia Kleikamp

The murderers arrived in a bus on a Monday in November: six young men, groomed and freshly shaven, wearing police uniforms. All six were carrying heavy sports bags. Still, they slipped past through three security checkpoints on the bus. Then, on foot, the group made its way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. No one asked to see their identification; the guards just assumed they were security personnel. But in those sports bags were Kalashnikovs and knives.

On that November day, exactly 20 years ago, fundamentalist-Islamic violence — as we know it today — began.

The six had prepared well, and knew that many tourists came to the temple on Monday mornings. Tourist groups from around the world were in the main gallery shortly after 9 a.m., listening to guides recounting the temple's history, there in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of the New Kingdom pharaohs.

It was around 9:15 a.m. when the six men ripped open their bags, grabbed their automatic weapons and fired into the crowd. "They took us in the middle, 200 to 300 tourists. No one should have survived," described a shaken witness after the attack. "I saw people whose bodies were torn open by bullets." Most victims died in the first two to three minutes: visitors from Japan, Switzerland, Great Britain, France. When police and soldiers from the security checkpoints in front of the temple returned fire, the terrorists withdrew into the temple to continue the onslaught, partly with daggers and machetes.

A guide, who sustained minor injuries, recalled: "The terrorists fortified themselves behind the columns. Many tourists were suddenly caught in the crossfire. Members of a local militia came down from the mountain and fired into the valley. It was indescribable chaos." In front of the temple lay the injured, screaming in pain, alongside piles of corpses.

In the end, 36 Swiss citizens, ten Japanese, six Brits, four Germans, two Colombians, and four locals were killed. And, of course, the six terrorists, ultimately shot by security forces as they half-heartedly attempted to flee the scene of the crime. They did not prepare for any exit route. Sacrificing their lives was part of their plan.

In the Luxor attack, on Nov. 17, 1997, certain elements came together, the same characteristics of terrorism that have since endangered lives across the planet. Islamic terrorism has metastasized in most countries over the past two decades — in New York, Bali, Barcelona, London, Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut — Photo: Wikipedia

Neither religiously-motivated terror nor Islamic perpetrators were new in 1997. On the contrary, this history reaches back at least to the Middle Ages.

The principle of suicide attacks was also not ‘innovative": the Japanese kamikaze and the Shiite Revolutionary Guard, which had died in Saddam Hussein's minefields during the Iran-Iraq War, came long before the Luxor attack.

Attacks in the West or on Western targets weren't unusual either. In 1993, terrorists had targeted the World Trade Center in New York, murdering six; and a series of bombings in Paris in 1995 killed eight.

In Luxor, however, these three elements were brought together for the first time on an unprecedented scale: The perpetrators were radical Muslims, who willingly sacrificed their lives in order to generate sheer panic by killing Europeans and citizens of other industrial states. Premeditated savagery became a deliberate means.

After the attack, rattled vacationers fled Egypt in droves. Tourist agencies suffered 80% cancelation rates. But time and again, the travel industry, which is essential to the Egyptian economy, recovered. Even further Islamist attacks on tourists, such as in Sharm el Sheikh (2005) or Dahab (2006) or, more recently, in Hurghada (2016), have not stopped the flow of travelers. The risk has just been factored into the price. The other costs may be harder to quantify.

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