Al-Qaeda wannabes in Sinai

Cairo attempts to clamp down on the unruly Jihadists of the peninsula

Jihadists521 (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
A Jihadist terrorist group called the Shura Council of the Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the two Grad rockets that targeted Eilat on April 17.
No one was hurt and no damage was caused in the attack. Yoram Cohen, the director of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), referred to them in an article he wrote for the Washington Institute as al- Qaeda wannabes.
Members of these groups dress like al- Qaeda activists, talk like them and use the same slogans. However, contrary to extremist Islamic organizations that function as part of the al-Qaeda umbrella organization in Yemen or North Africa, this organization’s headquarters – if there is such a thing – is in the Gaza Strip. The announcement also shows their close connection to political events in Gaza. It reads, “The Shura Council of the Mujahideen successfully hit the occupied city of Um Rashrash with two Grad rockets.”
But it is the next part of the announcement that is even more interesting. It continues, “The activists would like to take this opportunity to criticize organizations in the Gaza Strip that ‘settle for symbolic funeral processions and condemnations’ of the deaths of Palestinian prisoners. We call on all sane Hamas activists to cease imprisoning Mujahideen activists and persecuting Salafist Muslims in Gaza. We demand that all Palestinian prisoners who have been participating in the hunger strike for two weeks now be freed.”
And so, in this last line of small print telling us which organization took responsibility for the attack, a fact that the average Israeli who reads the news was not aware of was divulged: Palestinian prisoners who were arrested by Hamas in Gaza are currently carrying out a hunger strike. Until now, apparently, Hamas had been successful in keeping this unbelievable fact a secret.
Hamas has been waging a campaign of threats with journalists and pressuring them not to report what is really happening in Gaza or to have any contact whatsoever with Israeli journalists.
Hamas and the Egyptians were apparently extremely unhappy with the April 17 development.
Hamas is trying to hide these arrests being made in Gaza out of fear that it could be charged with cooperating with Israeli security forces. The wording of the announcement is extremely similar to announcements Hamas made condemning Fatah and the Palestinian Authority when the latter carried out arrests of Hamas activists.
If it is true that Palestinian prisoners sitting in Hamas prisons are currently on a hunger strike, then Hamas will most likely come in for harsh public criticism. At the same time that the Palestinian Authority is conducting an extensive campaign for the release of Samer Issawi, who is on a hunger strike in an Israeli prison, Palestinian prisoners are languishing in Hamas jails with no help whatsoever from Palestinian or Israeli human rights organizations. (Claims that prisoners in Hamas prisons are carrying out hunger strikes have apparently also appeared in one of the Jihadist forums run by Gaza residents. According to the Somoh al-Islam forum, a hunger strike has been in effect from early April.) But, above all, the Shura Council of the Mujahideen’s message strengthens the claim that Egyptian Islamist terrorist organizations in Sinai are receiving direct orders from the Gaza Strip, right under the nose of the Hamas regime. In the past, when the Egyptians made similar claims, such as when 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack, Hamas vigorously denied allegations that the perpetrators had come from Gaza or were directly connected to Hamas.
There is nothing new about Islamist terrorist organizations operating in Sinai against Israeli targets. Even before the fall of the Hosni Mubarak government in February 2011, Islamist activists had begun trickling into Sinai in an attempt to exploit the political vacuum and the economic hardship of the local Bedouin community and to recruit supporters of their extremist doctrine.
Sinai residents suffered from great neglect during the Mubarak regime. Egyptian businessmen from Cairo and the Delta region received permits to operate hotels and restaurants on the tourist-rich Red Sea coast in Sinai, while the Bedouin (at least in most cases) were only given permits in central Sinai, where they were less likely to benefit from booming tourism. Some 400,000 local residents were forced to seek other sources of income, or to work for Egyptians who treated them with contempt.
One alternative source of income that has grown significantly in recent years is the smuggling of arms and goods into Gaza through tunnels.
Mubarak’s fall brought about an influx of terrorists from the Gaza Strip and Egypt into Sinai, as well as from all over the Arab world. For example, in the terrorist attack on an Egyptian military base last August, some participants were neither Egyptian nor Palestinian. In addition, cooperation between these groups and the local Bedouin population has intensified. The Bedouin have become extremely religious, mainly due to the takeover of mosques by Jihadist groups in Bedouin villages and towns. Bedouin have helped terrorist activists acclimatize in Sinai: they have taught them about the various ways to evade Egyptian security forces and, of course, they themselves have participated in Jihadist operations.
The activists have maintained their connection to the Gaza Strip throughout the years. At least five or six Jihadist groups, most of whose heads or tails are in Gaza, are currently operating in Sinai. The group that calls itself the Shura Council of the Mujahideen, which is an umbrella organization for Salafist and Jihadist groups, included two Palestinian operatives who were killed in an Israeli attack: Hisham al-Saidini and Ashraf Sabah. (Earlier, the two had been members of another group called Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.) At a later time, their group was responsible for the escalation of tension that peaked with Operation Pillar of Defense.
Currently, the Shura Council is led by Abdallah al-Ashkar.
But aside from the Shura Council, a few other Islamist groups are operating in Sinai, led by Palestinians who are very closely tied to Gaza. The most well-known one is the Popular Resistance Committees. Jeesh al-Islam activists are also operating in Sinai; they identify with the Dormush clan in Gaza, as well as with the Jeesh al-Uma.
At the end of Operation Pillar of Defense last November, these groups faced a difficult dilemma: Should they completely stop firing rockets into Israel and avoid confrontation with Hamas? Or should they continue firing rockets and risk a head-on collision with the organization that controls the Gaza Strip? R. Green, a researcher at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), who has been following developments in Jihadist and radical Islamist movements, published a paper in December in which he documented differences of opinion among members of Jihadist groups in Gaza. Some of the issues on Internet forums included whether they should maintain the cease-fire or continue fighting.
For example, an activist called Dara 3 wrote that he thinks that the Salafist organizations should settle any disputes they have among themselves, and take advantage of the period of calm to deploy and arm their forces, to close ranks, and to avoid rubbing shoulders with Gazan security personnel or Hamas members. “This is the most important issue and I hope that it is understood well: There is to be no shooting of rockets and no Jihad operations out of the Gaza Strip. We are to take advantage of this period to prepare and arm ourselves and to give the Mujahideen a chance to rest. We have seen the benefits of such preparations – take for example the Izzadin Kassam Brigades.”
Dara 3 goes on to recommend a few additional actions to be carried out during the cease-fire. “Hold religion classes in which the Laws of Jihad are taught; attract young religious men who might be interested in protecting our security; continue our watch over Jewish targets and prepare for intensive activity; avoid wearing suspicious clothing – i.e. Pakistani and Taliban-style clothing or Muslim head coverings; act naturally in every way and blend into the community.” Dara 3 also urged activists to continue developing long-range missiles, as Hamas was doing.
However, Dara 3’s appeasing approach was not accepted by all of the Jihadist forum participants. The MEMRI site quotes another activist who claimed that they should absolutely not stop firing on Israel, and that the call to refrain from confrontation with Hamas is like telling someone who was just stabbed in the back not to confront his attacker.
Others argued that if Jihadists were ordered to stop all activity in Gaza, then they would just go to Sinai to continue the attacks.
In the first few weeks after Operation Pillar of Defense, it was clear that the call for a cessation of bombing Israel was the winning approach among Salafist organizations.
The cease-fire in Gaza was held almost to perfection. But slowly, cracks began to appear in their positions. From time to time groups fired rockets at Israel that fell in open areas – and, in one case, in Sderot.
The shooting also raised anew the danger of escalation with Israel and of a worsening relationship with Hamas, which once again began arresting Jihadists.
It could be that Ismail Haniyeh’s government’s more aggressive activity was the catalyst for April 17 rocketing from Sinai.
Shura Council members who did not want any conflict with Gaza leaders realized that the easiest solution was to launch rockets from within Sinai. The question is did Hamas know ahead of time about their intention to launch these rockets? At this stage it’s hard to know. A senior Palestinian official told the Hebrew weekly Sof Hashavua that, ultimately, Hamas controls these organizations and that Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad uses these Jihadist activists at his own discretion.
“Sometimes he brings them in close and sometimes he gives them some slack, depending on Hamas’s needs at the time.”
Egyptian officials claimed that the rockets were not even launched from within Egypt and that the Egyptian government has complete control over Sinai. But the reality is actually quite far from this. Despite the considerable reinforcements Egypt has deployed in Sinai (most of which were coordinated with Israel), Egyptian security forces are still finding it difficult to handle terrorists who are operating from within Sinai as well as with the rebellious Bedouin community.
It was reported in late April that an Egyptian officer was killed and a few soldiers were wounded in an ambush by armed activists. The kidnapping of Egyptian soldiers, tourists and international observers continues. Egypt no longer has an effective military intelligence system in place among terrorist and criminal networks in Sinai.
And yet it is hard to ignore the substantial improvement that has taken place in the Egyptian Army in Sinai, particularly with regard to the successful prevention of smuggling into Gaza. Military leaders understand the inherent threat that chaos in Sinai would bring, and are trying more now than in Mubarak’s time to restore order.
Egyptian-Israeli military cooperation is better now than it ever was, and almost all requests to send Egyptian reinforcements to Sinai have been answered positively by Israel.
Sometimes, the Egyptians have even decided to operate without coordinating with Israel and in contradiction to the peace agreement, stationing troops in Sinai without coordinating with Israel. Overall, however, the introduction of these forces have not “broken the balance” between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries. The Egyptian military has been focusing on the threat of Islamist terrorism and not on Israel, and this lack of coordination is mostly due to Egyptian disorder and not out of malice.
Avi Issacharoff is the Arab affairs commentator for the Walla! News website.