Al Qaeda sympathizers have opened a new front for the jihadist terror group in one of the most sensitive and combustible parts of the Middle East. The nascent group operates in the Sinai Peninsula where the borders of Israel, Egypt, and Gaza come together. In the wake of last week’s major Palestinian terrorist attack into Israel, which used the Sinai as a base, Al Qaeda’s presence adds another dangerous ingredient in the explosive Arab-Israeli tinderbox.
Since the Egyptian revolution in February, law and order has broken down in the Sinai, as Egyptian police stations have been abandoned or attacked. Prisons across the country have been opened or abandoned, allowing many accused jihadists to escape. Many fled to Sinai. The Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline in the Sinai, a keystone of the economy, has been attacked five times.
At the end of July, a group of dozens of armed men attacked the police station in El Arish, the capital of the peninsula, on the same day huge demonstrations took place in Cairo by Egypt’s most Islamic parties. In the wake of the attack on El Arish, pamphlets were circulated announcing a “Statement From Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.” The statement called for creating an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, implementation of Sharia, breaking the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, halting discrimination against the Sinai’s Bedouin tribes, and demanding Egyptian military intervention on behalf of the Hamas regime in Gaza. The mix of global jihadist demands with local Bedouin grievances suggested the long-repressed Bedouin population of the Sinai had been radicalized by Qaeda activists or at least had become sympathizers.
A video surfaced soon after, repeating the demands. In response to the violence and chaos, the Egyptian military sent a thousand more troops and police into the Sinai to restore order at least in El Arish. Under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, Egyptian military forces in the peninsula are limited in numbers and equipment, so Cairo had to get Israeli approval for the troop deployment.
None of Al Qaeda’s official media outlets has yet recognized the jihadists in the Sinai as a formal branch of Al Qaeda, but Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has replaced Osama bin Laden as emir of Al Qaeda, has publicly congratulated those jihadists who blew up the pipeline and has called for more attacks on Israeli targets in his latest audio commentary on the Egyptian revolution. Many Zawahiri supporters are among those released in the jailbreaks in Egypt this year, and he has long tried to rebuild the infrastructure of the terror underground he led in Egypt in the 1990s. Also freed in the jailbreaks were terrorists involved in attacks on tourist hotels in the Sinai in 2005 and 2006 that killed more than 100 people.
The Bedouin tribes of the Sinai have long been alienated from the government in Cairo, which has favored tourism-development projects in the peninsula that hire Egyptians from the Nile heartland over locals. The $500 million pipeline is universally unpopular in Egypt because it trades gas with Israel and because many believe the Mubarak regime sold the gas at cheap prices in return for kickbacks. Some Bedouin are involved in smuggling into the Gaza Strip and have become partners with Hamas in breaking the siege.
The Sinai is the land bridge between Africa and Asia; it is also the gateway to Gaza and Israel from Egypt. Armies have crossed it for centuries. It was fought over by Egypt and Israel from 1948 to 1979. For Zawahiri and Al Qaeda, the emergence of a sympathetic jihadist infrastructure in Sinai would be a major strategic gain in a pivotal arena. Even a relatively small number of terrorists hiding in the remote mountains of the central Sinai would be a dangerous threat to the stability of the region. They could target the pipeline, the border, tourists at Sharm al-Sheikh, and even American troops serving with the 12-nation-strong Multinational Force Organization charged with monitoring the peace agreement in Sinai. In short, if Al Qaeda can open a new front in Sinai, it will be a danger to peace and stability in the region as a whole.
The deadly terror attack last Thursday in Israel that apparently was conducted by Palestinians based in Gaza has already made the region a tinderbox. Egypt threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel because several Egyptian soldiers died in the crossfire between the Israelis and Palestinians. Only an apology from Defense Minister Ehud Barak kept the ambassador in Tel Aviv.
Al Qaeda is not about to take over the Sinai, and the group’s Shura Council may never give its formal sanction to the network operating in the peninsula. Despite the overheated commentary of some right-wing Israeli pundits, a Qaeda takeover is beyond the resources of the group.
But it can be more than a nuisance. It is clear that the radical ideology of Al Qaeda has gained adherents in the Sinai as well as in Gaza. In an already volatile situation, adding Al Qaeda, which would love to provoke a war between Egypt and Israel, to the mix could make the Middle East summer a lot hotter.
Thirty years ago this October, Zawahiri was arrested and tortured for his role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The plot to kill Sadat sought to unravel the peace he had made with Israel. Zawahiri and his supporters still want to finish the job.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.