CAIRO – Egypt's top security official accused an al-Qaida-inspired group in the Gaza Strip on Sunday of being behind the New Year's Day suicide bombing that killed 21 people outside a Coptic Christian church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adly said conclusive evidence showed the shadowy Army of Islam in the Palestinian territory was behind the planning and execution of the attack, which sparked three days of Christian rioting in Cairo and several other cities. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Egypt in more than a decade.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the bombing, which added to years of strained relations between Egypt's sizable Coptic minority and the country's Muslims. The government, eager to keep the sectarian tension under control, almost immediately blamed foreign elements for the attack.
The Army of Islam dismissed Sunday's accusations on an extremist website, and the Hamas militants who control Gaza and have themselves battled with the smaller group was also skeptical of the Egyptian claim.
Al-Adly said the group is believed to have recruited Egyptians in the planning and execution of the attack, but that this could not conceal the role it played in the "callous and terrorist" act.
An Interior Ministry statement later identified 26-year-old Alexandria resident Ahmed Lotfi Ibrahim as a lead suspect in the attack, saying he was recruited by the Army of Islam when he sneaked across the border into the Gaza Strip in 2008.
It said operatives from the Army of Islam tasked him with monitoring Christian and Jewish places of worship in Alexandria. Last October, the statement said, Ibrahim identified two churches, including the one attacked on New Year's Day, as likely targets and sent his handlers photographs of the two.
He was told in December that "elements" have been sent to carry out the attack, the statement said without elaborating.
Security officials said earlier on Sunday that at least five Egyptians have been detained in connection with the Alexandria bombing. They said the suspects have given investigators a full account of how they were contacted and eventually recruited by the Army of Islam. It was not immediately clear whether Ahmed, a university graduate who subscribed to the cause of jihad through the Internet, was one of those detained.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
The Army of Islam is estimated to have several dozen operatives committed, like al-Qaida, to the ideas of a global jihad. The group seceded from the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees in 2005 and currently has no ties with that group.
In 2008, Hamas unleashed a deadly crackdown on it, storming its stronghold and killing 13 of its members and prompting it to since keep a low profile.
The Army of Islam is thought to have participated in the kidnappings of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit in 2006 and BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was later released.
Late last year, Israel killed three members of the group in separate airstrikes, alleging the men had planned to attack Israeli and American targets in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
"The Army of Islam in the land of Ribat (Palestine) denies the allegation made by the Egyptian regime about our relation with the attack in the city of Alexandria," it said in an Internet posting.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, voiced doubts and asked Cairo to provide evidence to back up its charge. "We call on the Egyptian brothers to provide evidence and information to the government in Gaza about these accusations. We deny the existence of al-Qaida in the Gaza Strip and we reaffirm that the Egyptian national security is our national security," said Taher Nunu, Hamas government spokesman.
Suspicion for the Alexandria bombing had fallen almost immediately on some kind of al-Qaida-linked local organization after the terror group's branch in Iraq vowed to attack Christians in Iraq and Egypt over the cases of two Egyptian Christian women who sought to convert to Islam. The women, who were married to priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church, were prohibited from divorcing their husbands and sought to convert as a way out.
The women have since been secluded by the Coptic Church, prompting Islamic hard-liners in Egypt to accuse the Church of imprisoning them and forcing them to renounce Islam. The Church denies the allegation.
Al-Adly's announcement came in an address he delivered during a ceremony marking Police Day that was attended by President Hosni Mubarak, Cabinet ministers and top police officials.
In a separate address, Mubarak vowed that his government will "triumph over terror" and that he will do his utmost to maintain unity between Egyptians. About 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people are Christians.
"I will not be lenient with any sectarian actions from either side and will confront their perpetrators with the might and decisiveness of the law," warned Mubarak, Egypt's ruler of nearly 30 years.
Mubarak also lashed out against calls made in the West, including by Pope Benedict XVI, for the need to protect the Christians of the Middle East after the Alexandria bombing and attacks against Christians in Iraq.
"The protection of Egyptians, all Egyptians, is our responsibility and duty," Mubarak said. "The age of foreign protection has gone and will never come back. We don not accept any pressure on or interference in Egyptian affairs," he said.
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.