CAIRO — Egypt’s top security official yesterday accused an Al Qaeda-inspired group in the Gaza Strip 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 the accusations on an extremist website, and the Hamas militants who control Gaza and who have battled with the smaller group were also skeptical of the Egyptian claim.
Adly said the group is believed to have recruited Egyptians in the planning and execution of the attack.
An Interior Ministry statement later identified Alexandria resident Ahmed Lotfi Ibrahim, 26, 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.
He was told in December that “elements’’ have been sent to carry out the attack, the statement said.
Security officials said earlier yesterday 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.