Sinai could be next terror hotspot, says study

Israeli-authored study for a major US think tank finds Sinai's becoming potential launchpad for terrorism.

By OREN KESSLER
January 16, 2012 04:38
3 minute read.
An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai

An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R). (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

 
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Sinai is fast turning into a tinderbox of instability, a potential launchpad for terrorism and a source of tension between Egypt and Israel, an Israeli-authored study for a major US think tank found last week.

Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Channel 2 News’ Arab affairs analyst, wrote that developments in Sinai “could break a fragile bilateral peace that is already challenged by growing post-Mubarak demands to abrogate, review, or amend the treaty” between Jerusalem and Cairo.

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While the peninsula has long been given relatively free rein from Cairo, the breakdown in central control following president Hosni Mubarak’s February overthrow has seen Sinai turn into an increasingly autonomous region. Yaari, a former associate editor of The Jerusalem Report, wrote the past year’s increase in arms-smuggling and rise in Islamic extremism is a volatile combination: the natural gas pipeline leading through Sinai to Israel has been attacked 10 times in the last year.

The report, released by the Washington Institute, also cites the strong Islamist performance in Egypt’s parliamentary elections as cause for concern for Israel. An Islamist-government, it says, could turn a blind eye or even abet terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

“Sinai militias [might] operate freely in the same way that Fatah used to operate along the Jordan Valley in the late 1960s, or that the Palestine Liberation organization, the Amal movement and Hezbollah successively operated along the Lebanon- Israel frontier,” the report says. “Indeed, one can no longer ignore the possibility of a situation in which peace is nominally in force but hostilities are recurrent.”

While the study says no “quick fix” can improve conditions in Sinai, it offers a number of recommendations to help slow a deterioration in security, such as deploying the Egyptian military to the border and tightening Egyptian-Israeli coordination. The international peacekeeping force in the peninsula could also be bolstered and the US could realign its aid program to “exercise its still-considerable influence in Cairo to encourage much stricter supervision over the transfer of goods across the Suez Canal.”



Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said the situation in Sinai has the power to dramatically alter Israel’s security calculus.

“Since the signing of the peace accord with Egypt more than 30 years ago, the ‘cold peace’ with Cairo – and the Sinai’s mostly demilitarized nature – allowed Israel to focus on threats to its north and east,” he said. “Now, Israeli policymakers need to account for a new and potentially destabilizing theater to their south as they consider regional threats.”

In an op-ed in Forbes magazine last month, Berman noted an alarming growth of al-Qaida-linked groups in the Sinai, including those that claimed responsibility for several of the pipeline attacks and an August terrorist attack that killed eight Israelis near Eilat.

In late December, another jihadi outfit, this one calling itself Ansar al-Jihad, issued an online manifesto announcing its formation and pledging allegiance to al-Qaida.

“While it is still too early to tell whether the Sinai will emerge as a real front in al- Qaida’s war against the West, the way North Africa and the Persian Gulf now are, it is already clear that the bin Laden network is working to exploit the Sinai’s strategic vacuum–and Egypt’s Islamist ferment,” he wrote. “If it succeeds, it would mark a giant step backward for Middle Eastern stability, and for our progress in the war on terror.”

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