The storm clouds of Middle Eastern instability continue to gather around the region, creating the ideal conditions for the growth of radical jihadi forces. There are a number of security assessments in Israel pointing to the growth of global jihadi bases on Israel’s borders, where sovereignty is breaking down in varying degrees.
There are two main arenas of growing concern: Syria and the Sinai Peninsula. The IDF isn’t sitting idly by as the threats build up. It has quietly been busying itself with preparing military forces along the frontiers for the next attack, which, according to the army’s working assumption, is only a question of time.
This week, the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, went on record to provide the public with a glimpse of some of the security assessments.
In the short term, he said, security threats are on the rise. In the medium to long term, the increased radicalization of the region is sowing the seeds for new threats, he added.
Kochavi tried to also strike an optimistic note, by acknowledging that in the distant future, the region might just pull out of its chaotic, violent phase and produce real change for the better. But between the lines, the language used by the intelligence chief indicated that he was advising Israelis not to hold their breaths.
Currently, security officials view Syria as the No. 1 developing regional jihadi base. This week Kochavi described Syria as “the most disturbing example” of an arena that is becoming crowded with pro-al-Qaida elements, such as the al-Nusra Front.
There are dozens of rebel groups operating in Syria, some of which are active on the Golan near Israel.
Some are secular and pose no threat to Israeli security, but others are guided by radical jihadi ideology, seeking the establishment of a regional Islamic caliphate at all costs.
The al-Nusra Front is the most prominent of the radical groups, and consists of both Syrian fighters and foreign volunteers. It and similar groups are attracting “thousands of radical jihadi activists from the area and the world, who are basing themselves in the country, not only to topple Assad, but also to promote the vision of an Islamic religious state,” Kochavi said.
According to Military Intelligence’s assessments, jihadis in Syria have the potential to spill into Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and could also target Israel for attacks. The entire region could be impacted.
To address this situation, the IDF’s Northern Command has been beefing up its defenses on the Golan Heights and along Israel’s border with Syria for the past few months.
The changes include erecting a 60-kilometer-long electronic border barrier, complete with advanced sensors, increasing infantry and Armored Corps numbers, drilling the forces for a sudden security escalation and setting up a new combat intelligence battalion on Syrian border.
Down South, in Sinai, jihadis are flooding the arena as well. Egypt is poised to launch a large counter-terrorism operation against radical Islamic terror cells – some of which are linked to fellow terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has approved Egypt’s requests to mobilize armored vehicles, tanks, and combat helicopters to Sinai, and is hoping for an Egyptian success, as it watches the daily clashes between the jihadis and the Egyptian security forces.
Here too, Israel has been busy preparing for changes. The Defense Ministry’s project to erect a southern border barrier stretching from Kerem Hashalom to Eilat is a mere three months away from completion.
The IDF has also been improving its field intelligence capabilities near Sinai, operating elite units like Sayeret Rimon, and trying to gain a better understanding of what is occurring south of the border, in order to decrease the chances of being taken by surprise during an attack.
As in the North, improved border sensors are also in place.
The threat of rockets targeting Eilat remains an obvious area of concern, and the IDF has stationed an Iron Dome air defense battery near the Red Sea resort city, which, for the time being, is continuing to entertain its many visiting tourists, as if the battles raging a few kilometers to its south were occurring on a different continent.
There is one silver lining in Sinai, and that is the genuine and increased effort by the Egyptian army to tackle the jihadi threat. The army’s efforts have been ramped up since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was ousted.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon confirmed this while on a tour of the southern border this week.
“We see more effective activities by the Egyptian army and security bodies in recent months, particularly in recent weeks following the regime change that occurred,” he stated. The process will likely go on for a while, “longer than what we’d like to have seen,” he added.
Freshly appointed OC Southern Command Maj.- Gen. Sami Turgeman will have his work cut out for him in the coming months.
On both southern and northern fronts, the IDF will be seeking to enhance its ability to respond with lightning speed to any surprise, maintain its flexibility, and improve its ability to swiftly identify developing threats and direct devastating, accurate firepower at targets.
Ideally, the IDF will be able to utilize air, ground, and naval forces in any combination if necessary in such a scenario.
As Lt.-Col. Jackie Ben-Yakar, the outgoing head of the co-ed Caracal Battalion, stationed on the Egyptian border, told The Jerusalem Post recently, “Our working assumption is an attack will happen. It’s a matter of time. We are preparing for hostile action, we’re preparing the forces, training them, and keeping up their operational readiness.”