The Sinai imbroglio

Egypt’s clampdown against terrorists in Sinai is being coordinated with the IDF.

Egyptian soldiers move into El Arish, northern Sinai (photo credit: Reuters)
Egyptian soldiers move into El Arish, northern Sinai
(photo credit: Reuters)
To say that the current instability in Egypt is a source of concern for Israel is an understatement. The growing Israeli fear is that the Egyptian-ruled Sinai Peninsula will turn into “no-man’s-land.”
Indications of such a worrisome scenario have been evident since the Egyptian Army, led by Defense Minister and Chief of Staff General Abdul Fatah Sisi, toppled president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government on July 3, and even before then, when Morsi was still in power. Now, Sisi, who has added to his résumé the title of deputy prime minister in the newly sworn-in civilian government, comprising mainly liberal technocrats, is considered to be Egypt’s strongman.
The 60,000 square kilometer Sinai Desert peninsula, which is home to nearly half a million residents, most of them nomadic Beduin, has long been a security headache for Egypt and its neighbors. Large and empty, it borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip. It has a long coastal stretch on the Red Sea and the Eilat (Aqaba) Gulf, overlooking Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and flanks the Suez Canal linking Asia to Europe.
For over a month, terrorists and armed groups have attacked Egyptian Army positions in Northern Sinai and near the border with Israel, killing at least six Egyptian soldiers. The attacks are daily. In the worst incident so far, four Egyptian workers were killed on July 15 in El Arish, when their bus was ambushed by armed militants. In some of these incidents, shots were also fired at Israeli military patrols. Luckily enough, so far no Israelis have been hurt.
Days after the coup d’état (there is no other way to describe what happened in Cairo, though the US Administration does not see it this way), the Egyptian Army launched a major offensive in Sinai, with infantry and armored battalions and aerial support from four US-made Apache helicopter gunships, to quell the pockets of violence. Part of the mission was also designed to block and demolish the underground tunnels linking Gaza with Sinai, through which weapons and wanted terrorists are smuggled.
Egyptian security sources revealed that the deteriorating instability in Sinai was one of the reasons (the major one was the ousted government’s mismanagement of the economy) that led to the decision by the military to topple Morsi. The Egyptian military was concerned that Morsi and his loyal security advisors had secretly given Islamic militants in the peninsula free rein to operate against Egyptian Army positions and Israel. Egyptian intelligence officers also suspected that the Morsi faithful were secretly signaling to Hamas to join forces with the Islamic militants in Sinai.
The generals decided to take action already in November 2012. They ordered the army to crackdown on jihadists who had killed Egyptian soldiers and were mounting a campaign of violence in the region. But they were stopped by Morsi. “I don’t want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims,” Morsi told Sisi in ordering a halt to the planned offensive. This version of events was conveyed to the Associated Press by retired Egyptian Army Gen. Sameh Seif Yazl, who remains close to the military and sometimes appears with Sisi at public events.
So only now that Morsi has been removed from power is the army freer to try to pacify Sinai. The ongoing military campaign is being coordinated with Israeli military and intelligence officials.
The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed in 1979, limits the number of troops, heavy weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft that Egypt is allowed to deploy in Sinai, especially near the Israeli border. Via the online liaison channel between the two armies, Egypt requested and Israel approved the additional deployment by the Egyptian Army.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Maj.- Gen. Benny Gantz said July 15 that Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had a common interest in maintaining peace and stability in Sinai.
The Israeli concerns are vividly reflected in the structural and organizational changes that recently took place in Israel’s intelligence community. They are indicative of the shifting priorities and the strategic rethinking by Israel on Sinai.
For decades, Sinai played a double role in Israeli strategy, serving both as a buffer zone and also as a battlefield of past and undesirable future wars between the armies of the two countries. As a result, Sinai was a prime objective of IDF Military Intelligence (MI), whose main responsibility is to collect information on the military capabilities and war intentions of Arab armies in general and the Egyptian Army (the largest and the strongest among them) in particular. MI recruited agents and intercepted communications of the Egyptian troops in Sinai, ensuring that the peace treaty and the security arrangements were adhered to and that Egypt did not use the desert peninsula as a launching pad for another surprise military strike, as it did in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In recent years, however, the responsibility to monitor Sinai has moved from MI to the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), which is primarily entrusted with the task of foiling and preventing terror attacks. This shows that Israel is more preoccupied nowadays with the growing terror threat from Sinai rather than an Egyptian military threat.
Thus, the Shin Bet created a special unit known as the Sinai Brigade. The unit’s responsibilities are to collect information by all intelligence means on the various groups that are consolidating their presence in Sinai.
In addition, Israel is completing the construction of 200 kilometers of electronic fencing along the Israel-Egypt border, from Gaza on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea. Originally, the fence was built to prevent infiltration by African refugees and work seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea. But the fence has also proved itself to be an effective tool in the war against terror.
Shin Bet experts divide the various terror and militant groups operating in Sinai into three categories. Most of the violence directed against the central Egyptian regime is motivated by economic interests. Local Beduin gangs and groups make their living by smuggling drugs, weapons and other goods, and they hold a grudge against the authorities that try to obstruct their business. These groups have no ideology and have nothing to do with Israel.
The second category includes small, renegade factions of disenchanted former Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. They claim that the leadership of their mother organizations has softened and lost the zeal to fight Israel. They escaped from Gaza and found shelter in Sinai to plan their operations against Israel. These groups are responsible for some of the incidents against Israeli positions on the border aand also for some of the rocket fire at Eilat. The most prominent organization in this category is Jammat Ansar Bet Makdasi. Yet, over and above their efforts to inflict damage on Israeli rural communities and military positions along the Gaza-Sinai-Israel border, they also try to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas – once their ally, now their arch rival.
The third and most dangerous category comprises jihadist groups that are inspired by al-Qaeda and its world Jihad notion. The largest among them is Tawhid wal Jihad. The group numbers 300 to 400 active members and helpers and was founded by a Palestinian-Jordanian preacher whose message attracted radicalized local Beduin and Gaza-based Palestinians. The group has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks against both Israel and Egypt.
Another group is seemingly led by Ramzi Mowafi, an Egyptian physician. His biography is very sketchy and based mainly on Egyptian press reports citing Egyptian security sources. Mowafi was born in 1952, completed his medical degree in 1990, and then traveled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There, he reportedly met a number of Egyptians who told him that they were in need of doctors to work in Afghanistan. According to this version, Mowafi met al- Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Jeddah, and later ended up in Pakistan. At some point, he returned to Egypt where he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
In January 2011, during the huge street demonstrations against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Mowafi was one of the architects of the big prison break in which Morsi escaped along with a number of other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders. In August 2011, it was reported that Mowafi, who is thought to be an explosives expert, had reached Sinai and was organizing and training local tribesmen and fellow jihadists. That same month saw reports of messages being distributed at mosques in the area in the name of “al- Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.” According to a recent BBC Arabic report, Mowafi “is thought to be the emir of al-Qaeda in Sinai.”
“I believe that so far, the secret Israeli- Egyptian intelligence and military cooperation and coordination is proving to be effective, and the situation is under control,” says Reuven Paz, a former Shin Bet researcher and expert on radical Islamic groups.
However, he added, “if the Egyptian Army does not suppress the terror groups, Sinai may turn into no-man’s-land, and then more al-Qaeda groups will land there. As we witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, these guys sense a vacuum and hurry to fill it.”