Analysis: The Salafi menace in Sinai goes after a soft target

Terrorism in the Sinai targets Egypt's battered tourist industry; jihadist organizations in Sinai link up with similar entities all over the troubled Middle East.

Bus shown after explosion in Sinai, February 16 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bus shown after explosion in Sinai, February 16 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Salafi jihadist terrorists based in Sinai struck again on Sunday, but unlike most of their recent targets, this time it was foreign tourists who were at the receiving end of their fanatical violence.
The attack represents an attempt by Sinai terrorists to damage Egypt’s troubled tourist industry, which is making modest attempts at recovery this year following a long period of upheaval.
It is safe to assume that soon after the smoke cleared from the wrecked tour bus at Taba, the Egyptian General Intelligence Service launched an intensive investigation to track down the identity of the culprits.
It is also reasonable to assume that the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis organization is a prime suspect.
It, like other Salafi jihadist groups in Sinai, is inspired by al-Qaida, and is made up of a mix of radicalized Beduin, residents of Egypt proper and a growing number of foreign volunteers.
The group has taken part in a string of deadly ambushes and bombings of Egyptian army and police personnel in Sinai, attacking buses carrying soldiers and Egyptian army outposts, and even downing a military helicopter last month with a shoulder-fired missile. The latter attack, filmed and broadcast on the Internet by the jihadists, is reminiscent of Mujahideen battle tactics in Afghanistan.
Salafi jihadists in Sinai view the Egyptian state as an apostate entity, and have subscribed to al-Qaida’s call to wage jihad for the establishment of a caliphate empire, in place of Arab states. In line with this ideology, servants of these states – security personnel – and those that help their economy – tourists – are all targets.
As time goes by, chances increase that these elements will link up with fellow jihadists in other destabilized regions, foremost among these Syria, and form transnational terror networks.
Such loose networks already exist.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis maintains strong links with the Gaza Strip, partnering with groups such as the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). This allows Gaza terrorists to “subcontract” attacks on Israel away from the Strip, to protect the ruling Hamas regime from Israeli retaliation.
Last week, the Israel Air Force targeted senior PRC member Abdullah Kharti in a missile strike in Gaza due to his role in orchestrating Bayt al-Maqdis rocket attacks on Eilat from Sinai. These included a January 31 rocket that was fired at the Red Sea city but was shot down by the Iron Dome defense system.
With hundreds of Salafi jihadists based in Gaza, and many of them moving to and from Sinai, smuggling weapons and plotting attacks, it is no longer possible to view Gaza and Sinai as fully separate sectors. The danger of these networks merging with the extensive jihadist networks in Syria is substantial.
The terrorists who dealt a blow to Egypt’s tourism industry have long been trying to do the same to Eilat’s tourism industry, mainly through rocket attacks.
Israel and Egypt are being attacked by the same foe, one that feeds on regional instability to spread its poisonous ideology and indiscriminate violence.