August 5, 2013:
Egypt’s military has been trying to rout terror cells across the Sinai Peninsula for several weeks. A recent attack on a military outpost left six Egyptian soldiers dead. Some 17 security force members and five civilians have been killed in the region since Morsi’s ouster on July 3. Egyptian intelligence estimates that there are at least 500 armed extremists operating on the Sinai Peninsula. As many as 30 attacks have been carried out against security forces in the region in the past two months.
August 4, 2013:
Weapons smuggling through Sinai also continues, with a truckload of Grad rockets seized by the Egyptian Army on July 17. At the beginning of this year, when Israel’s domestic intelligence service released a report including an assessment of the threat from the Sinai, it detailed that hundreds of long-range rockets and anti-tank weapons had been trafficked through the Sinai into Gaza. In order to fully understand why such a threat continues to exist, as well as the predicament it poses Israel’s leadership, it is important to look beyond the smuggling, at the deep-running ideological and operational links between militants in North Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
Al-Qaida-inspired groups like Ansar Jerusalem, mostly comprised of Egyptians recruited from Sinai Bedouin tribes, Ansar Jerusalem claimed responsibility this July for a Grad rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat and last October, it announced that it would target Israel in response to the deaths of two senior jihadist leaders in Israeli airstrikes earlier that month. Outside the fold of traditional Palestinian militancy, Ansar Jerusalem’s use of the Sinai Peninsula to attack Israel and inspiration from Al-Qaida connects it to groups based inside Gaza. Foremost amongst these is the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), believed to be responsible for an April attack on Eilat in which two rockets were launched at the city. An umbrella group, bringing together the Salafist militant groups Ansar Al-Sunnah and the Tawhid and Jihad Group amongst others; the MSC does not recognize the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel; and in June 2012, it dedicated an IED attack – which killed one Israeli – to Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a pre-recorded video address which included a pledge of loyalty to him.
Hamas, held responsible by Israel for militant activity within Gaza, appears to have been attempting to mitigate Salafist activities, through physical intimidation. A member of the Al-Nasser Salah Al-Deen Brigades, part of Gaza’s PRC, was badly beaten by Hamas fighters in mid-July. This followed an announcement by the MSC in June that denounced Hamas for preventing the group and its allies from carrying out its jihad. Despite the beating meted out to the PRC fighter, the rocket attacks on Israel have continued, and should the groups based within the Sinai continue to increase their strength they will embolden their allies inside Gaza. As such, with the international community keen to see peace talks move forward, it will be vital for the U.S. and others to engage with Hamas’ financial backers in the Gulf and stress the importance of challenging this threat.
July 28, 2013:
Egyptian army deploys some 3,000 soldiers and more than two armored battalions, including dozens of tanks and at least 10 attack helicopters to clear out more than 50 terrorist compounds in the central and northern parts of the peninsula. The Egyptian military began staging an offensive over the weekend to clean out the terrorist networks in the Sinai Peninsula. The goal of the operation, dubbed “Desert Storm,” is to clear out the more than 50 terrorist compounds located mostly in the northern and central parts of the peninsula. Some 3,000 soldiers and more than two armored battalions, including dozens of tanks and at least 10 attack helicopters, which had been moved into the peninsula in recent months, received the green light on Friday to commence the attack.
More than three weeks after the military coup that ousted this nation’s first democratically elected — and Islamist — president from power, the roots of a violent insurgency are burrowing fast into the sands of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The rapid thud of machine-gun fire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades have begun to shatter the silence of the desert days and nights here with startling regularity, as militants assault the military and police forces stationed across this volatile territory that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. In the Sinai, long Egypt’s most elusive and neglected region, a familiar cycle of repression has already taken hold. Lawlessness, smuggling and militancy have thrived on the peninsula since the 2011 fall of Mubarak’s regime. Bedouin leaders fear that the territory’s population may soon get swept up in the military’s crackdown, escalating the conflict into a wider war.
July 25, 2013:
Frequent skirmishes between the army and militant networks have killed dozens in recent weeks. The bloodshed is another pivotal test for the new military-backed government, which is struggling with political divisions, a broken economy and rising sectarianism. Militant attacks in the Sinai’s deserts and lawless scrublands spread amid the security breakdown left by the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They have intensified since July 3, when Islamist anger deepened after the coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The instability has spurred neighboring Israel, which signed a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, to tighten its border. Security officials fear a new wave of terrorism reminiscent of the assaults on resorts and tourist sites that killed dozens in late 1990s and early 2000s. Indications that militant plots may be radiating beyond the Sinai arose Wednesday when a bomb hidden beneath a car exploded outside a police station in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, killing one soldier and wounding 28 others.
July 15, 2013:
Over the last few years, violent jihadists have tried to fill a power vacuum in the Sinai. This is standard operating procedure for groups sympathetic to the goals of al Qaeda; they move in wherever state control is weak and local resentments are high. But the Sinai holds a geographically key position: it is next to Gaza. Its smugglers are a vital lifeline between that Hamas-ruled enclave and the outside world. The other end of the border is next to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, where authorities found an unexploded rocket last week. Saad says the ideals of the peninsula’s militant groups are not native to the Sinai. The jihadists have come to Egypt with outside money and weapons, he says, and their numbers are relatively small. But the people of Sinai can only wait so long for the military to crack down on the jihadists, which it seemed reluctant to do under Morsi’s Islamist government. In the end, says Saad, it might be up to the people—not the army or the state—to crush these terrorist groups. But it would be best if they could work together with forces from Cairo. “The longer an interim government is ruling Egypt, the more likely it is that terrorism will not subside,” says Omar Ashoura, a fellow at the Brookings Center in Doha who specializes in jihadism. Strong leadership is required, he says, and a balance of civilian and military action to quell the extremist violence. If not, he warned, the Sinai could well become a battleground affecting the whole country and the region.
What any government in Cairo is going to have to recognize is that urgent attention needs to be paid to the Sinai. On July 5, masked gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at the airport in the North Sinai town of Arish and attacked government checkpoints, killing at least six police officers and soldiers. Since then there have been nearly daily attacks. Dozens more police officers, soldiers, and civilians have died, a natural-gas pipeline to Jordan was bombed, and on July 6, gunmen murdered a Coptic Christian priest and kidnapped another Copt whose body turned up last week, bound and beheaded. Just this morning, suspected militants in North Sinai fired an RPG at a civilian bus as they screamed “Allahu akbar!,” killing three people and injuring at least 17. The Bedouin who are native to this region famous as the “wilderness” of the Old Testament have their tribal laws and their own way of life. But rather than understand that and work with them, Cairo has tended to treat them as incorrigible renegades to be oppressed, ignored, or, worse still, exploited by politicians for their own purposes. When Morsi was elected last year, Abu Ashraf, a powerful Bedouin leader in the Sawakra tribe who often serves as a mediating voice with the jihadists, says he had hope for a new chapter in Sinai. “We faced 30 years of inhumane treatment, marginalization, and imprisonment, until the election,” he says. “Morsi promised to develop Sinai, but then there was no actual development on the ground.” Abu Ashraf blames state institutions for most of the former president’s failures. In his opinion, they worked against Morsi, not with him, and if the army doesn’t handle the current transition carefully, he says, it could make things dramatically worse. Right now he sees no credible path forward. “There has never been a political party that understands Sinai,” says Abu Ashraf. “The liberals, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], Salafis, they always come with the same approach to the Sinai. Whoever is in power, they have a fear of the Bedouins and don’t want to incorporate them into the state.” Abu Ashraf noted that because of the lax security in the Sinai, jihadists and locals have, at times, joined forces to fight the central government, especially families who have members facing arrest in absentia. Young, unemployed men have also joined jihadi groups. While most of the attacks have not been directly linked to Islamist militants opposed to Morsi’s ousting, Abu Ashraf said there is an obvious anger among jihadists who feel the army is attacking Islam. There is also a rising level of resentment among the local population who are more willing now to fight government-sponsored injustice. He maintains that the army often instigates aggression in Sinai. Asked about the recent attacks by extremists, he replies: “Violence creates violence.” Mossad Abu Fajr, a Bedouin writer who was imprisoned for nearly three years under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, said he imagines the majority of Bedouins would back the military in its fight against terrorism. He thinks the results could be surprisingly positive. “The fight against terrorism would develop the relationship between Sinai and the Egyptian state,” he stressed. As Egypt begins yet another political transition, and the politicians in Cairo debate over how to lead the country out of turmoil, the people of Sinai hope they won’t be forgotten. But, following decades of what they see as betrayal and false promises, they aren’t holding their breath for any real change.
“The Bedouins want security,” says Saad. “They want water, new roads. They want to eat, to live. They don’t care who is in the palace.”