VACATION SPOT? A hiker takes a photo in the White Canyon area in South Sinai, Egypt, last year..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Now that the holidays are over, we can get back to discussing the threat posed by ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism distributed flyers during the holidays warning Israelis about the danger of vacationing in the Sinai and requesting that they not enter the area due to the threat of Islamist terrorism.
The travel advisory, however, did little to prevent thousands of Israelis from vacationing at the numerous Red Sea resorts in Sinai over the recent extended holiday period. Sinai enthusiasts claim that there are many good reasons to vacation there despite the risks.
They say that the Sinai is an amazingly calming place to vacation, it doesn’t cost much, and there haven’t been any attacks there lately. In addition, they claim that the Egyptians have positioned a huge number of soldiers in the region to protect tourists, and the Beduin also have an invested interest in keeping calm in the region for their own livelihood. Another interesting argument that I recently heard is that the mountain range in the central region of the peninsula functions as a physical barrier against ISIS operatives, who are mainly active in northern Sinai.
Could this possibly be true? If we are to understand the true meaning of the threat, we must take a look at the data. Over the last five years, dozens of terrorist attacks have taken place in Sinai by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (aka Ansar Jerusalem), which pledges allegiance to ISIS. They refer to the region as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.
Another terrorist group that’s active in Sinai is Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, which identifies with Al-Qaida, and has officially stated that its mission is to return the entire Middle East to Islam and to fight the Jews who are controlling Jerusalem.
Another two smaller organizations carrying out attacks against the Egyptian government in Sinai are Jaysh al-Islam and Takfir wal-Hijra.
Most of the attacks carried out by these two groups have in fact taken place in northern Sinai, but both of them also have operatives throughout the region that are based on a network of Beduin tribes that for many years has been actively involved in the smuggling of weapons and terrorists.
Over the last five years, dozens of Egyptian soldiers and foreign tourists have been killed in Sinai. This past August, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis released to the public a video tape in which its leader said that its main goal was to harm Israeli tourists who come to vacation in Sinai. So we must ask ourselves, why do so many Israelis disregard this concrete danger? Or is it just an empty threat? Until 2011, the Egyptian government made almost no effort to gather intel or thwart attacks in Sinai. The only location Egyptian security and intelligence officials have invested any effort at all is on the Egypt/Gaza border, in order to prevent the bi-directional smuggling of weapons and terrorists. The recent wave of attacks against the Egyptian military has, however, finally served as a wakeup call and the latter recently embarked on a series of retaliatory operations.
According to the Egyptian authorities, they’ve succeeded in annihilating over 75% of terrorist centers in Sinai.
But terrorists continue to move around almost freely throughout the peninsula, whose terrain they know all too well. The mountains in central Sinai pose absolutely no obstacle for these operatives, who are familiar with every path and tunnel.
Egyptian Army roadblocks are practically irrelevant for terrorists, who mainly move around on camels, donkeys and jeeps on paths they know like the back of their hands.
As a result, the terrorists have no difficulty circumventing these roadblocks.
The same Beduin tribes that manage tourist sites in southern Sinai are also actively involved in the trafficking of weapons and terrorists throughout the entire peninsula.
The Beduin know all too well which hotels Israelis tourists tend to frequent.
The obvious conclusion then is that the danger is all too real, and terrorists are extremely eager to hurt Israelis. Many such operatives have published videos purporting as much. It is quite evident that terrorists can easily move around the southern Sinai and that roadblocks do not function as any deterrence for them, since they prevent only the movement of buses and cars.
The fact that many Israelis feel calm lounging near the Red Sea and hanging out in the relaxed atmosphere of Sinai resort towns, and that they trust the Egyptian military to protect them, has no basis in reality. We must acknowledge that the Egyptian rescue services are ill prepared to offer much protection or aid to Israeli tourists, and travelers are well aware that Israeli medical and extradition personnel are forbidden from entering the Sinai in cases of emergency.
In other words, Israeli tourists who are wounded in an attack could even die while waiting for Egyptian rescue or medical teams to arrive on the scene.
In short, this column was not intended to be a form of intimidation and as a way to frighten Israeli tourists from vacationing in Egypt. The purpose of these lines was purely to lay out the facts and explain exactly what the dangers are. Israelis who plan to vacation in Sinai should be away of the huge gamble they are taking with their lives.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.