Sometimes the threat of violence can be as effective at instilling fear as violence itself. And sometimes it represents a dramatic overreach by a group relying on propaganda to accomplish what it couldn't possibly imagine doing by deed.
The claim of responsibility by the self-styled Supreme Council of Holy Warriors (Magles Shura al-Mujahideen) for a failed rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat yesterday is almost certainly the latter – particularly given the claim that it was in retaliation for an alleged Israeli drone strike inside Egypt that killed four militants last week. The rocket was shot down by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.
"In a swift response to the latest crime of the Jews that killed four Mujahideen in the land of Sinai through a (drone) strike the lions of Magles Shura al-Mujahideen ... were able to strike the occupied city" of Eilat, the group's online claim reads, according to Reuters. "We assure that neither Eilat nor any other Israeli cities will be blessed with security."
That is a frankly laughable assertion. Eilat is Israel's access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, and is within spitting distance of Jordanian and Egyptian territory. The Sinai has long been Egypt's most lawless region and smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip have helped the weapons trade flourish on the Peninsula, as well as given access to militants coming out of Gaza. In that respect, Eilat is the most exposed city on Israel's southern flank – and has been for a long time.
Yet Sinai-based jihadis have been singularly unsuccessful in doing damage to the town. While they might one day get lucky, the deployment of Iron Dome missile defenses to the area have further shifted the odds against them. And until they can damage their easiest target, their claims of putting other Israeli cities at risk should be treated as the bluster that it is.
Of course, sometimes empty jihadi threats have something for everyone. The jihadi group gets a boost of publicity and perhaps improved recruitment opportunities by looking dangerous, and the security services of their targets have a greater justification for funding and harsh tactics.
Consider the hullabaloo the US had last week, with 19 embassies and consulates shut in response to an unclear Al Qaeda threat that had something to do with Yemen. Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri got a nice shot of publicity, and the US intelligence services, under fire for intrusive global surveillance practices, got some "proof" that they're keeping everyone safe. Some analysts were even saying the event was evidence of a reformed, more dangerous Al Qaeda – even though the group's core in Pakistan hasn't been able to carry out a major international attack for years.
Is there a problem in Egypt's Sinai? Yes. The Egyptian military has failed in asserting government control over the area – and if it really did sign off on an Israeli drone strike inside the territory, that would be an exceptional bit of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. Especially since so much of Egypt's officer corps is invested in the belief that they helped lead to the end of Israel's occupation of the Sinai, and that if the Egyptian public becomes convinced their generals gave the Jewish state permission to carry out an attack in the Sinai, it could be devastating to their public support.
But while much has been made of "rising" lawlessness in the Sinai since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt's dictator in February of 2011, this isn't really a new phenomenon. There were two failed rocket attacks on Eilat in 2010 from the Sinai (one of which overshot and killed a civilian in Jordan's Aqaba).
Egyptian interests have also long been targeted in the Sinai. For instance in 2004, 34 people were murdered by two jihadi bombings in the Egyptian tourist town of Taba, just across from Eilat. In 2005, three bombs on the Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm al-Sheikh (where Mubarak kept a second home and security was always unusually tight) killed 83 people.
Who are the "Supreme Council of Holy Warriors?" In June of last year, the group claimed responsibility via the Internet for the killing of an Israeli civilian in an attack on the Sinai border. Last October, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said an Israeli airstrike there had killed a member of the group. It appears to be an Al Qaeda-inspired local group, probably involving some Egyptians and some Palestinians from Gaza.
Beyond that? They haven't proven they're much of a threat to anyone yet outside of the Sinai's borders.