The Sinai Peninsula: A Growing Strategic Threat
According to a one senior Egyptian analyst, the Rafah terror attack was planned over the course of three months by six Jihadist and Takfir groups.
One of the groups also involved, according to one senior Egyptian official, was a Palestinian terror group based in the Gaza Strip named Jeish Al Islam (Islam’s Army).
The groups involved in the attack are not part of Al-Qaida. However, they are inspired by its ideology. Al-Qaida has announced the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in the Sinai Peninsula and as far back as December 20, 2011, Al-Qaida announced the presence of its military wing in the Sinai Peninsula, called Ansar Al Jihad.
Some of the militants that perpetrated the attack were killed by Israel during the offensive and their bodies were handed over to Egypt. Though the bodies were completely burned, DNA tests conducted by Egypt, indicate that the attackers were indeed Egyptian nationals. Egypt is expected to formally announce the exact identity of the attackers within the next few days.
One of the perpetrators who was arrested during the military campaign launched by Egypt in the Sinai following the attack, disclosed details about the planning and the method of the attack.
According to one senior Egyptian officer, Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip were involved in the preparation, planning and executionof the attack. He also argues that Hamas was aware of the plot. During the attack itself, Hamas’ military wing – the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigade – militants, together with militants belonging to the Al Quds Companies, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, launched a mortar attack from the Gaza Strip in an attempt to assist the attackers with their escape.
According to an Egyptian source, Egypt has a list of more than 100 names of people that are members of radical Islamic groups like Al-Qaida and Takfir. In addition to Egyptians and Palestinians, these groups include militants from Yemen, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. According to this source, the number of militants in the Sinai Peninsula has increased from 600 to 1600.
The groups have large quantities of weapons – mostly from Libya and Iran – including surface to air and anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons are smuggled into the Sinai Peninsula either through Egypt, the Red Sea, or the tunnels that connect the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
These radical groups are based in the mountainous areas of Jabl Al Halal and Jabl Amro in the central part of the Sinai Peninsula and are funded by different sources including Iran. (End of reports)
Accumulating reports indicate that some 15 – 20 Salafi, Jihadist, and Takfir groups operate in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip.
The number of these groups’ members (both supporters and activists) in the Gaza Strip is probably a couple thousand.
The number of Jihadist militants in the Sinai Peninsula is estimated to be anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand.
Clearly, the perpetrators are inspired by Takfir ideology. Takfir is an Islamic extremist group and is considered to be the group with the most extreme radical Islamic ideology. The Arabic word “kafer” means infidel and it describes all non-Muslims. Takfir ideology claims that Islam’s pure essence was distorted by the Islamic religious establishment, thus the majority of Muslims are not pure because they do not practice the pure Islamic ordinance and faith as they should. Therefore, takfir’s ideology also views Muslims as infidels who should be executed just like any other infidels.
Though no one claimed responsibility for the Rafah terror attack, it is likely that the attack was conducted by one – or more – Takfir and Jihadist groups. According to one report, the attack was conducted by Al-Tawheed Wal Jihad group.
Al Tawheed Wal Jihad is an offspring of an Egyptian group called Al Takfir Wal Hijra.
Al Tawheed Wal Jihad is considered to be the most dominant Jihadist group in the Sinai Peninsula.
Al Takfir Wal Hijra was established in Egypt in 2002 by an Egyptian doctor named Khaled Musaed Salem, a member of a large Bedouin tribe in the Sinai Peninsula. He was killed during a terror attack launched by the group in Taba in 2005. His successor, Hamis Al-Malhi, was killed in 2006 in a clash with Egyptian forces in the city of Al Arish located in the northern Sinai. The group’s current leader is Hisham Al Sa’adani, who reportedly was – or still is – in the Gaza Strip.
Members of the Salafi, Jihadist, and Takfir groups are mostly Egyptians and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. According to one source, Al Tawheed Wal Jihad has about 250 militants and multiple sources indicate that they work closely and collaborate and cooperate with other Jihadist groups based in the Gaza Strip including Jeish Al Islam, Al Jaljalat, and Junud Ansar Allah.
Al Tawhid Wal Jihad is responsible for many terror attacks in the Sinai Peninsula over the last decade, including the most deadly attacks in Taba in 2004 and Sharem El Sheikh in 2006 – together these attacks killed and injured dozens.
Accumulating reports also support the possibility that Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were involved in the Rafah attack.
The Egyptian army formally announced that the attackers were assisted by Palestinian militants who fired mortar shells from the Gaza Strip during the attack.
According to some sources, Egypt has demanded that Hamas turn over three militants who belong to the Jeish Al Islam group – including its leader, Mumtaz Daghmush. Both Hamas and Egypt deny these reports.
According to some reports, Hamas was aware of the impending attack. One Egyptian analyst even argues that Hamas funded the operation. Hamas obviously denies it. Hamas spokespeople and senior officials argue that the attack was orchestrated by Israel. They also argue that any Palestinian involvement – if proven – is to be attributed to individuals.
Both Egypt and Hamas describe their security cooperation as tight and effective. Reportedly, security teams of Hamas and Egypt are working together to discover the identity of the attackers.
However, the picture may be somewhat different than what both sides present.
The Rafah attack was clearly a slap in Hamas’ face, given the fact that a few days before the attack Hamas’ Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, announced that Hamas would assist Egypt in ensuring security in the Sinai Peninsula.
It is clear that today, and in the immediate future, the attack cast a shadow over the Gaza-Cairo honeymoon that followed the election of Muhammad Morsi as the President of Egypt.
The following facts support that assessment:
First, the Egyptians public opinion shapers openly argue that though Hamas is not responsible for the attack, they should be held accountable for the fact that Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were involved in the attack. Some Egyptian columnists even describe the Gaza Strip as a threat to Egypt’s security.
Second, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing (with some minor exceptions) for almost three weeks, ignoring Hamas’ requests to reopen it. Reportedly as of August 27, Egypt finally reopened the Rafah crossing.
Third, Egypt is holding back the transport of vital commodities from its territory into the Gaza Strip including: building materials and diesel that was sent from Qatar to the Gaza Strip.
Though not confirmed, following that attack, allegedly Egypt has demanded Hamas turn over the leader of Jeish Al Islam – that could be another reason for the Hamas-Egypt tension.
Such a demand – were it presented – would put Hamas in a difficult situation.
Complying with that demand could put Hamas on a collision course with Jeish Al Islam and perhaps with other Jihadist groups in the Gaza Strip. Relations between Hamas and Jihadist and Salafi groups in the Gaza Strip are tense, though the tension in most cases is restrained, with the exception of random, small-scale mutual hostilities.
That being said, some serious bursts of violence have taken place. For example, in 2008, massive clashes between Hamas and the Jeish Al Islam organization resulted the killing of eleven Jeish Al Islam militants – including Mumtaz Daghmushe’s brother.
In August 2009 Hamas crushed the Junud Ansar Allah group in southern Gaza. The fighting resulted in the death of a few dozen of the group’s militants, including its leader, Abd Al Latif Musa AKA Abu Nur Al Makdasi In both incidents Hamas also sustained casualties.
Petrified by the scenario of a possible massive collision, it is possible that Hamas will refuse to comply with Egypt’s demand. If that is the case, it is possible that the Hamas-Egyptian security team’s real task will be to dissolve the tension – perhaps by putting the blame on another group. That may explain reports that Hamas arrested a couple of Jihadist-Salafi activists in the Gaza Strip, including a senior Salafi-Jihadist commander who was discharged from the hospital a few days ago following a severe injury he sustained during an Israeli interceptive strike.
Reality in Sinai
Remote, neglected and sinking in poverty, the Sinai Peninsula is fertile ground for crime and terror. Its wild, wide desert, mountain ranges, valleys and caves provide ideal conditions for terrorists and outlaws.
Egypt’s previous government was aware of the dangerous reality developing in the Sinai Peninsula, and the challenge it presented to Egypt’s sovereignty and security – yet did little to confront it.
It seems as if Egypt’s new rulers are more determined to confront that challenge for a few reasons:
First, Egypt was traumatized by the attack. The fact that Muslims butchered Egyptian soldiers – their brothers in faith – while they were eating dinner at the end of a fast day during the month of Ramadan, deeply shocked the Egyptians. A profoundly upset Egyptian public opinion would have not settled for anything less than a forceful Egyptian retaliation.
Second, Egypt’s new President faces major, urgent and immediate challenges – he has to save Egypt’s collapsing economy, he has to stabilize his rule and calm the political tension in Egypt, he has to restore law and order, he has to gain the West’s cooperation and support, and the list goes on and on…
Morsi is under a magnifying glass. A group called Zabatak formed by young Egyptians, established a web site called Morsi Meter, aimed to monitor to what extent Morsi’s pre-election promises are being implemented on the ground.
The terror and crime entity in the Sinai will seriously damage Morsi’s efforts to effectively confront Egypt’s challenges and, could result in serious negative ramifications for Egypt both internally and externally. Therefore, Morsi can’t allow the growing challenges in the Sinai Peninsula to continue.
Third, the Muslim Brotherhood views these groups as an ideological competitor, which is ironic because to some extent, some of these groups are off-springs of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. One reason for the Muslim Brotherhood’s concern is that radical Islamic groups want to skip the phase of a modern state that has political institutions like parties and political establishments. In their view, the concept of a modern state is an obstacle on the way to the real thing – one unified Islamic Caliphate ruled according to Islamic law – Sharia’ah. The Muslim Brotherhood also seeks to get there, but for the time being they don’t undermine the state and political establishment. To the opposite, in the Muslim Brotherhood’s view, the path to the Caliphate must go through modern state. As the Muslim Brotherhood movement marks its biggest political achievement in Egypt, the movement will not hesitate to oppress any source of threat.
At this point it seems as if Egypt is conducting a parallel two-track policy regarding the challenges in the Sinai Peninsula.
On one track, the Egyptian army launched a military operation named “Eagle 2” on the bases and hiding places of these groups in central and northern parts of the Sinai. However, according to Egypt’s military assessments, a military campaign aimed to uproot the terror and crime entity which was built in the Sinai Peninsula could take a long time – some say years.
Morsi could sink deep into the Sinai sand. A long and violent arm-twisting effort in the Sinai would only result in more and more casualties among the Bedouin tribes – blood which would definitely be avenged. That would generate a self-perpetuating circle of violence that could lead to further extremism, forcing Egypt to escalate its operations and to send in reinforcements. That sort of move would violate the peace agreement and generate a possible crisis with the US. A long, violent confrontation with these groups will also generate terror attacks in Egypt’s cities.
That scenario is probably one of the reasons for the fact that Egypt is also conducting a diplomatic track Aa the same time. Reportedly a senior Egyptian delegation consisting of senior officers and officials from the President’s Office met secretly with Jihadist leaders in northern Sinai to discuss understandings and to define new ground rules.
Therefore, it is reasonable to assume, that Egypt’s policy towards the Sinai Peninsula will probably combine occasional, restrained military pressure on the one hand and the strengthening of Bedouin tribal leaders’ authority on the other through political and economic incentives. Morsi’s government will allocate resources and funds to develop the Sinai and will also empower the Tribal leaders through political appointments.
From a military perspective, it is likely to assume that the main characteristics of Egypt’s modus operandi will be: strengthening its intelligence capabilities in the area – including its intelligence cooperation with Hamas; increasing security inspections along the roads to Sinai; diminishing the tunnel industry while Increasing inspection of those who will be allowed to operate the tunnels; increasing pressure on the mountain range of central Sinai; and minimizing collateral damage by using elite forces for pinpointed and surgical counter-terror operations in the populated area in northern Sinai such as Rafah, Sheik Zueid, Al Arish and the surrounding areas based upon accurate intelligence.
Hamas-Egyptian relations will be restored but not without some changes…
Prior to the attack, some people in Hamas assumed that under Morsi’s umbrella Hamas could act against Israel more freely. Egypt’s reaction to the attack and more important – the reactions of the Egyptians themselves, made it very clear to Hamas that this assumption is wrong. Egypt needs stability and Hamas is required to act responsibly. Hamas’ dependence on Egypt is crucial for the day to day needs of Gaza. Egypt expects Hamas to play a stabilizing role – and Hamas will comply.
On another level, Hamas benefits from the Rafah terror attack. Egypt’s military campaign in the Sinai puts the Jihadist groups in Sinai, as well as in the Gaza Strip, under growing pressure, and diminishes their operational capacity so the challenge these groups present to Hamas’ rule diminishes.
Both Hamas and Egypt are unwilling to risk a total confrontation with these groups. That policy could back fire on Hamas and Egypt. Terror attack/s launched from The Gaza Strip and/or The Sinai Peninsula, targeting Israel and or Hamas/Egypt’s sovereignty symbols, could result serious escalation thus jeopardize Hamas’ and Egypt’s interests.
Jihadists and Takfir groups in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip will continue to plan and to execute attacks. Through terror attacks, these groups hope to generate a deterioration which will lead to a war between Israel and Egypt.
All of these groups are ideologically motivated to attack Israel and to slaughter Jews wherever and whenever they can. All of these groups do not take into account any calculations, rationale or considerations other than their radical ideology and operational needs.
The threat Jihadist and Takfir groups present is serious. Time will tell whether this threat is restrained and diminished or will escalate.
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