The Luxor Massacre (1997)
The Luxor massacre was the killing of 62 people, mostly tourists, on 17 November 1997, at Deir el-Bahari, an archaeological site and major tourist attraction across the Nile from Luxor, Egypt.
It is thought to have been instigated by exiled leaders of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian Islamist organization, attempting to undermine the July 1997 “Nonviolence Initiative”, to devastate the Egyptian economy and provoke the government into repression that would strengthen support for anti-government forces. However, the attack led to internal divisions among the militants, and resulted in the declaration of a ceasefire. In June 2013, the group denied that it was involved in the massacre.
Deir el-Bahari is one of Egypt’s top tourist attractions, notable for the spectacular Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, an 18th dynasty pharaoh known also as Djeser-Djeseru.
In the mid-morning attack, six gunmen killed 58 foreign nationals and four Egyptians. The assailants were armed with automatic firearms and knives, and disguised as members of the security forces. They descended on the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at around 08:45. They killed two armed guards at the site. With the tourists trapped inside the temple, the killing went on systematically for 45 minutes, during which many bodies, especially of women, were mutilated with machetes. A note praising Islam was found inside a disemboweled body. The dead included a five-year-old British child, Shaunnah Turner, and four Japanese couples on honeymoon.
The attackers then hijacked a bus, but ran into a checkpoint of armed Egyptian National Police and military forces. One of the terrorists was wounded in the subsequent shootout and the rest fled into the hills where their bodies were found in a cave, apparently having committed suicide together.
One or more al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya leaflets were reportedly found calling for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman from U.S. prison, stating that the attack had been carried out as a gesture to exiled leader Mustafa Hamza, or declaring: “We shall take revenge for our brothers who have died on the gallows. The depths of the earth are better for us than the surface since we have seen our brothers squatting in their prisons, and our brothers and families tortured in their jails”.
Most of the 58 victims were foreign tourists. Switzerland was the hardest hit, with 36 of its citizens killed. The youngest victim was a 5-year-old British child.
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Following the attack, then president Hosni Mubarak replaced interior minister General Hassan Al Alfi with General Habib al-Adly. The Swiss Federal Police “later determined that bin Laden had financed the operation”.
The tourist industry in Egypt in general and in Luxor in particular was seriously affected by the resultant slump in visitors and remained depressed until sinking even lower with the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, the 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh attacks, and the 2006 Dahab bombings.
However, the massacre marked a decisive drop in Islamist terrorists’ fortunes in Egypt by turning public opinion overwhelmingly against them. Terrorist attacks declined dramatically following the backlash from the massacre. Organizers and supporters of the attack quickly realised that the strike had been a massive miscalculation and reacted with denials of involvement. The day after the attack, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leader Refa’i Ahmed Taha claimed the attackers intended only to take the tourists hostage, despite the immediate and systematic nature of the slaughter. Others denied Islamist involvement completely. Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman blamed Israelis for the killings, and Ayman Zawahiri maintained the attack was the work of the Egyptian police.
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