Security and defense: Thwarting the Sinai terrorism threat

Terror organizations are entrenched in the desert dunes of Egypt’s semi-lawless province; intelligence, hi-tech border reconnaissance, and reinforcements are part of the IDF’s preparations for years of danger.

Bus shown after explosion in Sinai, February 16 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bus shown after explosion in Sinai, February 16 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The bomb blast that tore through a tourist bus carrying South Korean nationals on Sunday, killing four civilians and wounding several more, was heard loudly in next-door Eilat. The senseless attack on innocent civilians is the latest reminder to both Egypt and Israel that the Salafi jihadi terror organizations, entrenched in the desert dunes of Egypt’s semi-lawless province, are not going anywhere.
In the past two years, as Egypt deteriorated into anarchy (before making a partial recovery), and as radical warlords began setting up base in Sinai, posing a growing threat to Israel, the IDF’s Southern Command took a number of steps to change its security arrangements along the Egyptian border.
A new security fence was completed in 2013, meaning that for the first time, a physical barrier exists between Egypt and Israel. On the Israeli side of the fence, the IDF set up a new Combat Intelligence Collection battalion, whose companies scour the border in a variety of ways, while employing hi-tech sensory gadgets, like radar sensitive to human movement and highly advanced cameras.
These units have been joined by units specially trained to intercept incoming terrorists, such as Rimon, a desert warfare elite unit. Other units, like the mixed male and female Carakal Battalion, have been securing the border for years.
The IDF does not place tanks on the border, as this is considered a violation of the peace treaty with Cairo. But in principle, tanks can be mobilized if necessary.
The IDF also permanently maintains an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery near Eilat. Over the past two years, the IDF has swept aside its old operational conceptions to create a new working model, based on the reality of an unstable border.
The military’s Southern Command also has access to an undercover unit that storms the location of suspects, which is managed jointly by the IDF and the Israel police.
Additionally, the Eilat district Counter- Terrorism Unit remains on permanent standby in the area, and is able to use helicopters to get to any location along the border, to take on armed terrorists who may have crossed into Israel.
On a daily basis, Beduin scouts move up and down the border, sensitive to the smallest changes on the ground, and putting security forces on alert when they feel that something is wrong.
The list is impressive, but is unlikely to be adequate in the long run. When it comes to border security, measures on one’s own side of the border can only go so far, in the absence of the ability to strike targets on the other side of the border – as the IDF freely does when necessary in the Gaza Strip.
The peace treaty with Egypt is a vital strategic asset that must be guarded at all times, and this severely limits Israel’s freedom of action in Sinai. Yet, it seems impossible to conceive of a situation in which the IDF is aware of a clear and present danger to Israeli civilians, and when there is insufficient time to communicate the location of the enemy to the Egyptian security forces, and not acting.
The hope in the IDF appears to be that such drastic measures, which carry the potential to strain relations with Cairo, will not be necessary – particularly now, when Egypt has proven more willing than ever to take on jihadis in Sinai.
But hope can only go so far. In August 2013, unconfirmed foreign reports emerged from the Sinai Peninsula of an Israeli drone strike on a rocket-launching cell that was in the final stages of preparations for firing on Israel.
It would seem natural for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to also invest more resources into mapping out the latest threats in the Sinai Peninsula, to locate the presence of nerve centers for Salafi groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and to develop the ability to provide an early warning of impending attacks – the type of intelligence enjoyed by Israel in other sectors.
Such intelligence would require a detailed study of who poses a danger in Sinai, who are the terror leaders, what are their recruitment methods, who has joined the terror groups, and what weapons they have access to.
Links with Gaza-based pro-al-Qaida groups, as well with established Palestinian terror organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, should also be a natural area of interest for Israel’s intelligence agencies.
But this task is not a straightforward mission, and is riddled with difficulties. Senior army commanders on the ground have said that without a doubt, they assume the next attack will occur in the near future. And they expect the attack to be a surprise, despite the preparations and the training.
Although the public only hears about the Sinai region when there is terrorism, behind the scenes, IDF units on the ground are responding to nearly daily observations of suspicious movements and figures on the other side of the frontier.
The army fully expects one of those figures to turn out to be a terrorist in the future, and is making every effort to train and equip its forces to be able to identify the jihad-driven “predators” in the desert, before they sting.