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.