Militants dig in as Egypt cracks down on jihadi sandbox in Sinai

At least 16 militants were killed in the Sinai Peninsula this weekend, including some from a group which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near Rafah last year and has repeatedly targeted Israel.

People check the scene where a car bomb exploded in near the port town of El-Arish in Egypt's Sinai peninsula July 24, 2013. A car bomb exploded near a police base and two soldiers were killed in separate, multiple attacks in Egypt's lawless Sinai peninsula, which has seen a spike in violence since the July 3 army ouster of the country's Islamist president.

Recent reports paint Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as a vast jihadi sandbox that could become a new global hub for Al Qaeda. But the violence of late is not merely due to heightened militancy, however strong that threat may be. It is also the result of the Egyptian military’s freer hand to crack down after deposing President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood last month.

“The Army for the longest time has been holding back from interfering in Sinai,” says Sameeh, a high-ranking security official in northern Sinai who would give only his first name. “The elements in this area fear that they might lose this [strategic area] now that we have deployed more tanks and we’re putting more effort into clearing this area, so obviously they are going to fight back.”

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, Egypt has launched a major military operation in Sinai, bringing in two additional battalions, which required Israel’s approval. Israel couldn’t be more eager to contain Sinai militancy after a series of attacks shattered decades of calm along the Israel-Egypt border, causing Israel to boost elite forces and accelerate construction of a 150-mile border fence. Israeli drones were rumored to be behind the deaths of four of at least 16 suspected militants killed in weekend airstrikes.  

The heightened violence underscores Sinai’s strategic importance to all sides as they scramble to protect their interests amid tremendous upheaval in Egypt.

The stakes are high. The vast, rugged region could provide an ideal launching pad for global jihadi attacks, compromising Egyptian security at an already tumultuous time, undermining a lynchpin of US policy in the Middle East, and severely testing Israel’s 34-year peace treaty with its southern neighbor at a time when it faces growing threats elsewhere. Egypt is one of America's most stalwart allies in a complex region, and a key partner in helping to thwart terrorism, opposing Iranian nuclear weaponization, and especially to protect Israel's security – a top priority of US foreign policy. 

Israel has spent the past two years worrying that the Muslim Brotherhood might cancel the 1979 peace treaty, but some Israelis themselves are now calling for a rethinking of Camp David.

“It seems the old arrangements underpinning security relations between the two countries are outdated and ill-suited to an era when a quasi-state run by Hamas has emerged in Gaza and when a hodgepodge of Bedouin clans, Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations and Salafists have filled the security vacuum in Sinai,” wrote the conservative Jerusalem Post in an editorial today. “Perhaps the time has come for Egypt and Israel to rethink these arrangements in an effort to confront the challenges emanating from Sinai.”

Longtime battlefield

Israel and Egypt tussled over the sandy, underdeveloped triangle for three decades until signing the 1978 Camp David peace accords. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid the ultimate price for making peace with Israel and was assassinated three years later by Islamist militants. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, cracked down hard on Islamists. During the protests of early 2011 that ousted Mr. Mubarak, thousands of prisoners broke out of jail; some were reportedly militants who made their way back to the Sinai.

In one of the most brazen attacks since, Sinai militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in August 2012 at the junction of the Israeli, Gaza, and Sinai borders, near the Egyptian town of Rafah.

But despite the tremendous blow to the military, Morsi was slow to respond. “A year ago there were the killings in Rafah, and Morsi promised that he would get back at those people who killed those soldiers,” says Sameeh, the general, in a phone interview. “And nothing was ever done.”

Now that is changing.

The 'most important and dangerous' group

The Egyptian Army said last week it has killed 60 and arrested 103 “terrorists” in the first month after Morsi’s ouster. An Egyptian airstrike on suspected militants Aug. 10 killed at least 12 people in what Egyptian officials said was a reprisal for the Rafah attack.

And on Aug. 9, a day after Israel briefly shut down the Eilat airport due to Egyptian intelligence that Sinai militants had anti-aircraft missiles, an airstrike rumored to have been carried out by Israeli drones killed four members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as they were preparing to launch rockets toward Israel.

According to an annual report from Egypt’s Ministry of Interior, 18 anti-aircraft missiles were among a number of major illegal weapons shipments apprehended between Matrouh, near the border of Libya, and Alexandria. Also intercepted were 35 Grad rockets, more than 130 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), various guns, and tens of thousands of bullets.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is also referred to as Ansar Jerusalem, is “the most important and dangerous” militant group operating in Sinai, says Maj. Aviv Oreg (res.), former head of the Al Qaeda and Global Jihad desk in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence branch.

It consists mainly of local Bedouin but also some foreign jihadis and was behind last year’s Rafah attack on Egyptian soldiers, Oreg says. It also claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attack on Israel in years, which took place in August 2011 about 20 miles north of the resort city of Eilat.

Israeli generals say military cooperation was actually better with Morsi’s government than Mubarak's and is expected to improve further after the July 3 coup, according to Amos Harel, longtime defense correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. But on a recent media tour along the Israel-Egypt border, he noted that while Israel has touted its ability to protect itself against missile attacks, the closest big target for Sinai militants – Eilat – is hard to defend with its Iron Dome anti-missile system because the city is wedged between Jordan and Egypt.

“I think some of the Sinai terrorist organizations have already recognized that,” Harel said. Indeed, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for at least three rocket attacks on Eilat over the past year.

Links with Al Qaeda

Daniel Nisman of the Israel-based security consultancy firm Max Security Solutions says there are about 1,500 jihadists in Sinai, broken down into 15 to 20 cells with varying ideologies, some of which are in line with Al Qaeda.

The Daily Beast reported last week that the US Embassy in Tel Aviv was among 19 embassies that closed temporarily after the US intercepted communication between Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan and a leader of Al Qaeda in Sinai. 

Oreg says he’s not aware of any formal Al Qaeda presence in Sinai, though some of the groups are in contact with Zawahiri, who is originally from Egypt.

But there is certainly sympathy with the global terrorist franchise. As early as 2011, heavily armed Salafist militants in the coastal Sinai city of el-Arish handed out flyers labeled “A statement from al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula,” CNN reported.  

“The mix of global jihadist demands with local Bedouin grievances suggested the long-repressed Bedouin population of the Sinai had been radicalized by al-Qaeda activists or at least sympathizers,” wrote veteran CIA officer-turned-analyst Bruce Riedel in a 2012 assessment of Al Qaeda’s presence in the peninsula.

“For Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, the emergence of a sympathetic jihadist infrastructure in Sinai would be a strategic gain in a pivotal arena.”

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