Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Sinai Vacuum

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Update from AIJAC

August 9, 2012
Number 08/12 #02

This Update is dedicated to the implications of the latest large-scale attack from Sinai into Israel on Sunday, which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead, but caused no casualties in Israel. A good introduction to the news about the attack and its immediate aftermath appeared in Sharyn Mittleman's "Fresh Air" blog post on Tuesday - this Update will focus on the wider Sinai problem of a power vacuum increasingly being filled by violent extremist groups highlighted by this latest attack. 

First up is a piece that canvasses the views of a number of Israeli security experts on the Sinai security vacuum. Their consensus appears to be that Israel can do little to defuse the problem, and that both political and economic imperatives in Egypt mean that the Egyptian government will not do enough to change the fundamentals of the situation. The net result is that the Sinai problem for Israel is not going to be resolved, and more attacks appear inevitable. For analysis by the security experts in their own words, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times reports from Sinai itself about what locals say about the Bedouin tribes believed responsible for the latest attack and  numerous previous one,  both successful and thwarted. His key finding is that the attacks involve relatively small local Bedouin groups who have bonded with Gaza extremist groups via the cross-border smuggling trade into Gaza, and have received weaponry from Libya and Sudan. The other key factors identified by Fleishman is the security vacuum that has developed in Sinai since the fall of the Mubarak regime, as well as the perception of being neglected by the central government about which local tribes complain. For this look at the violence and extremism emanating from the Sinai peninsula from inside,  CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, noted Israeli reporter Ehud Yaari says the radicalisation of Sinai can be traced back to the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza - which saw Gaza smuggling and then extremist ideology infiltrate the peninsula.

Finally, noted Israeli Arab affairs analyst Pincus Inbari has a closer look at the motivation of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Sinai thought responsible for this week's attack. He says that these Salafists have a vendetta against Hamas in Gaza since Hamas closed down their primary mosque in Gaza and killed the preacher there in 2010, and their hope was therefore to spike the growing cooperation between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood-led new Egyptian government. He also suggests the Muslim Brotherhood response - which blamed Israel, as did Hamas -  strongly suggests a determination not to let the attack succeed in derailing their arrangements with Hamas - and also that the Brotherhood and Hamas may be planning themselves to spark their own incidents with Israel that could be used as a pretext to cancel the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. For his discussion in full, CLICK HERE. Another look at the goals of the Salafists - emphasising their hope to spark Egypt-Israel war - comes from Israeli security reporter Ron Ben Yishai. More on how this incident may have damaged incipient Hamas-Brotherhood cooperation comes from Khaled Abu Toameh.

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A horrific attack thwarted, but every reason to fear that worse is ahead

Israel is limited to defensive actions, and Egypt cannot even bring security to its mainland, so more terror from the Sinai seems certain

By Mitch Ginsburg

Times of Israel, August 7, 2012, 6:17 am

The IDF managed on Sunday evening to halt a squad of suicidal terrorists each armed with explosive belts and in the possession of an armored vehicle and a truck packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives.

The army’s initial investigation revealed an optimal result from top to bottom, including close cooperation between the Shin Bet and the IDF, and smooth coordination between the infantry, the armored forces and the air force.

Yet this success does not change one central, grim fact: Neither Egypt nor Israel has the capacity to fully defuse the ticking bomb of terror in the Sinai. Which means there will be further attacks, with potentially devastating consequences.

Both sides are shackled. Israel is constrained by its aspiration to cling to the strategic peace accord with Egypt, and therefore acts only defensively in the southwestern border region. Egypt is held back by its desire not to be seen to be aiding Israel or abandoning its Islamic principles, and by its chronic and fundamental domestic troubles.

Mainland Egypt today is in a state “of complete and utter chaos,” according to Brig. Gen. (res) Shalom Harari, a member of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a former adviser to the Defense Ministry on Palestinian affairs. He says that citizens in Egypt proper no long enjoy even a basic sense of security. Copts have come under mass attack, their houses burned; segments of the train track between Cairo and Aswan are stolen on a daily basis; the Saudi Arabian embassy, in the heart of Cairo, was vandalized, the life of the ambassador reportedly threatened.

“Ever since the Tahrir uprising, the police has been stripped of legitimacy,” Harari said. “Security forces are helpless even in the Nile Delta… There are 85 million mouths to feed, there is no tourism, there is no electricity. And you want them to deal with the Sinai?”

Harari contends that although the Sunday night assailants killed 16 Egyptian border police officers, inside their base, as they sat down to break their daily Ramadan fast, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will still be portrayed as serving Israel’s interests if they crack down on the Islamist terror cells in central and northeastern Sinai.

Other Israeli analysts claim that this attack is different, and will prompt a more substantive Egyptian response. But even they agree that the bottom line is the same – Egypt will not eradicate the terror cells in the Sinai, cells that threaten the peace between the two nations.

Dr. Jacques Neriah, an analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former colonel in the IDF’s military intelligence corps, for instance, expects Morsi will act, but within limits.

He said that in this attack the army’s pride had been wounded, there was blood to avenge, and the enemy was widely believed to have acted in a cowardly manner by striking while soldiers broke their fast. ”Morsi has reason to want to chop off a few heads, to show that order has been restored,” said Neriah. “But he does not have enough oxygen in his lungs to launch a major operation.”

Harari and Neriah agreed that a successful military mission, to achieve a strategic reassertion of Egyptian control in the Sinai, would require months and not weeks. Both believed that Egypt would request an amendment to the military agreements of the Camp David Accords, allowing for a larger military presence in the four demilitarized zones in the Sinai Peninsula. Both believed that Israel would acquiesce to a slightly increased, mostly infantry-based rise in troop levels. And neither thought it would do much good in the long term.

The IDF, for its part, has altered its deployment along the southwestern border.

It has added a new brigade near Eilat. It has established Rimon, a reconnaissance unit trained specifically to fight in the desert. It has begun sending top-level infantry forces to the region instead of Border Police and reservists. It has heightened its surveillance presence.

According to former intelligence officials, it has surely shuffled intelligence priorities, devoting both technical and human resources to the once-sleepy desert that has become a mini Tora Bora, a hotbed of terrorist activity beyond the reach of the law.

And ever since last August’s attack on Route 12, in which eight Israelis were killed in a sophisticated cross-border terrorist infiltration from Sinai, the Defense Ministry has been working feverishly to finish the security barrier along the border. A spokesman said that the fence would be completed in September or October.

Yet all of these actions are defensive.

But then defensive actions are the only actions Israel feels it can take to try to prevent more attacks like Sundays.

Nobody doubts that there will be more. They may not all end as successfully as this one did for Israel. And the longer they continue, the more they will erode the 34-year-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

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In Egypt's Sinai peninsula, militants pose a new threat

Bedouin tribes have held sway here for centuries, but amid the country's political instability, extremists are finding its lawless terrain ideal.


By Jeffrey Fleishman

 Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2012
SHEIKH ZUWEID, Egypt — The Bedouin tribal leader hurried up a sand dune in the moonlight and scanned the troubled land below: the Israeli border to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north and, to the south, a desert of militants, smugglers and African migrants, some of whom almost certainly will die miles from their dream.

Ahmad Sallam could hear the waves. His clansmen moved like whispers as they collected brush for a campfire. The tribes have held sway for centuries in Egypt's harsh Sinai peninsula, but they are facing a new threat from Islamic militants who have grown bolder since last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday, the masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian police officers and hijacked a pair of armored vehicles in a plan to attack an Israeli border post.

"The extremists have increased since the revolution. They have blown up the gas pipeline to Israel. They have targeted checkpoints and fought with the Egyptian army," said Sallam. "They seem to have political aims but no one knows what they are. We are worried they could get stronger."

The escalation by militants is complicating the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, a centerpiece of Middle East security since it was signed in 1979. The U.S. and Israel, which has hinted it may act unilaterally in Sinai to protect its security, have urged Egypt's military and its new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, to rout the extremists.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called Sunday's attack "a wake-up call" for Morsi. Sinai is an extreme example of the nation's messy, incomplete transition to democracy. Its lawless terrain is ideal for militants, who, tribal leaders say, are recruiting men frustrated over decades of marginalization by the government in Cairo.

Tribesmen are careful not to exaggerate the radicals' capabilities and suggest they consist of no more than a few hundred Egyptians connected to local cells that have bonded with radicals from Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. At least one operative from Saudi Arabia has joined their ranks, but the extent of broader foreign involvement is unclear.

The groups receive weapons, including mortar launchers and high-caliber guns, trafficked from Libya and Sudan. Government officials said militants orchestrated Sunday's assault. They are also suspected of involvement in an estimated 15 bombings along a natural gas pipeline line to Israel. A group calling itself Magles Shoura al-Mujahedin claimed responsibility last week for a cross-border attack in June that killed an Israeli worker.

The Sinai is a crucial early test for Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member whose government is strengthening ties with Hamas but is also trying to keep more radical Islamist elements at arm's length. Anger is sharpening among many Egyptians over the persistent violence in the peninsula, which is harming tourism and exposing Cairo's inability, or lack of will, to rein in radical elements.

There's a rise in "these extremist organizations. They may be associated with Al Qaeda, but only God knows," said Arafat Khedr Soliman, a tribal leader whose window looks out to the Israeli border. "But their mentality is the same. They think everyone other than them is an infidel. They want their own Islamic state."

He added: "Sinai has become the world's stage. Israel is acting here. America is acting here. The militants are acting here. But the Egyptians are powerless."

Army checkpoints dot this land of desert scrub and smugglers' tunnels that slide beneath dirt roads and reach into Gaza. Cement, medical supplies, guns, diapers, drugs and even cars move underground. The trade has sustained the northern Sinai for years. The other chattel is human — Sudanese and Eritreans paying thousands of dollars to be sneaked into Israel for the promise of jobs.

The security vacuum has widened over the last 18 months as police — the symbol of Mubarak's regime — have pulled back amid fear of reprisals. The military has moved in but its presence feels bunkered: Wide swaths of territory bristle beyond its gaze. Shortages of gas, electricity and water have spurred street protests marked by roadblocks and burning tires.

The tribes are a refuge for many. They offer protection and the promise of something better. Every clan has its smugglers, outcasts and criminals. But the young men now joining the militants, some of whom fly the black flag of Islamic war, are threatening the region's equilibrium.

"This will cause strife in tribes," said Sallam. "These terrorists are telling our youth, 'You're either with us or against us.' "

The Sinai has long been untameable. Terrorist attacks on Sinai resorts, including Taba and Sharm el Sheik, killed scores of tourists between 2004 and 2006. In recent months, Bedouins have briefly kidnapped American, Asian and other travelers in retaliation for the arrests of tribesmen connected to smuggling. This frontier swagger has given rise to a state-within-a-state, where armed men sleep in doorways and pickups disappear down unmapped roads.

Outward signs of religious devotion are more pronounced than in Cairo. Many men wear beards and women often cover their faces. Tensions between tribesmen and militants have deepened in recent months, notably after extremists blew up a mausoleum of a respected religious sheik, claiming that such shrines are against Islam. Tribal leaders who rebuilt the grave site have warned their young that the militants are perverting religion and endangering a way of life.

The rule of law across the north Sinai is a mix of Islamic principles and tribal codes that has replaced government courts. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and other mechanisms of the state have scant influence in desert villages and coastal towns.

Asaad Albeik, a white-bearded man in a starched tunic, has been presiding over an Islamic court for decades. An agricultural engineer, he negotiates whether a manslaughter charge can be dropped if the accused offers the victim's family 100 cows or 400,000 Egyptian pounds. A murder can be forgiven for 800,000 pounds and 100 cows, 60 of which must be pregnant.

"Of course," Albeik, peering over files, said in a slow, textured voice, "the family has to agree, otherwise — "

The defendant is put to death.

"Government courts have stopped operating. They were corrupt," he said. "Ninety percent of the cases that used to go to municipal courts now come to sharia courts. The state has been too lenient. People come here out of religious duty and for justice."

Albeik acknowledged that the Sinai has its problem with extremists, but suggested other forces were also at work.

"There's a plot to bring down the revolution," he said. "It is necessary to be adamant about your religion, but extremism equals corruption. I believe these 'radical militants' are operatives from the old regime trying to defame Islam. They've grown their beards to look pious.... We are on a strategic land, and in the future things will change to reflect this."

Far from Albeik's chamber, men dressed in white moved, incandescent in the moonlight. Coastal lights glowed in the distance and all seemed peaceful. Tribal leader Sallam knew every squiggle of road, saw every headlight blooming. He and his clansmen often climb this dune and talk through the night about the despair unfolding below them.

"We've been neglected as a people. Food. Water. Public services. All neglected," he said. "But now we don't know how things will turn out. We have hope in the new president, but young men here turned to smuggling because there are no other options."

He paused as kindling was collected.

"The tribes are not cooperating as they should be," he said. "These terrorists have unnerved us. They're the root of the problem and they're causing uneasiness. Each tribe is blaming the other."

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Shaking Sinai

By Pinhas Inbari

World Jewish Congress,
08 August 2012

On Sunday night, a terror squad attacked an Egyptian border guard unit whose soldiers were breaking for iftar - the Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. Sixteen soldiers were killed and many more injured. After the slaughter, the terrorists captured two armored vehicles and attempted to drive them into Israel in order to initiate a large scale terrorist attack. Their plan was foiled by the IDF, which received some previous intelligence on the operation.

While no organization has so far claimed responsibility for the attack, the most likely perpetrator was an al-Qaeda affiliated group based in Sinai. The attack marks a new area of interest for al-Qaeda, which in the past has kept the Palestinian-Israeli issue on the margins, as compared to its main interest in the West led by the United States, as well as Russia and India.

Al-Qaeda is seeking to reinforce its powerhouse image by confronting global powers. A regional confrontation with Israel actually decreases its importance since it immediately reduces it to one of many groups involved in the Palestinian struggle. Indeed, al-Qaeda’s involvement in Israeli affairs does not signal its interest in the Jewish state but reveals its focus on the larger struggle for Islamic leadership. The attack in Sinai was an attempt to foil the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas’ efforts to join forces in the struggle for the leadership of radical Islamists.

The bitter rivalry between Hamas and Salafist groups like al-Qaeda in Gaza is a well-known fact. It began when al-Qaeda refused to join in the celebrations of Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election in 2007. On the contrary, Ayman Zawahiri himself cautioned Hamas against participating in the election and assuming governmental responsibilities that would come at the expense of jihad. Furthermore, al-Qaeda criticized Hamas for the series of ceasefires with Israel, causing some Hamas military personnel to defect to al-Qaeda’s ranks in Gaza.

Relations between Hamas and al-Qaeda deteriorated again when Hamas destroyed a Salafist mosque in Khan Yunis two years ago, killing the preacher who declared himself as Emir to his many followers. Since then, al-Qaeda has been hungry for revenge.

The deadly event in Rafah can be therefore considered as a strategic political vendetta.

Sunday’s attack was aimed against the Kerem Shalom border crossing that oversees the regulated movement between Gaza and Egypt. It is located next to the Rafah crossing that is not regulated and operates on an ad hoc basis. Hamas sees the regulation of the Rafah crossing as a strategic goal. It wishes to control the Palestinian side of the crossing and to be recognized by default as the true government of Gaza, displacing Ramallah’s authority over the crossing. This goal has suddenly come within reach following the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory in Egypt. The cozy reception Hamas enjoyed at the Egyptian presidential palace has made al-Qaeda suspect that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood would soon join forces and pushed it to act in order to stymie their efforts.

As much as the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood-Hamas alliance is a strategic al-Qaeda goal, so is its preservation and growth a principal objective for the new Egyptian government and the Gazan leadership. While Egypt may take radical measures to counter the immerging terrorist threat in Sinai, it will do its utmost to shield Hamas from any accountability, citing local “criminal groups” as the perpetrators instead. This policy was reaffirmed the day after the attack by a formal Muslim Brotherhood statement that outlined future relations with Hamas and indicated that the ruling party in Egypt intends to recognize Hamas as the legitimate ruler in Gaza and perhaps even give it responsibility over the border crossings.

Furthermore, the statement also hinted at a possible understanding reached between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood to create a chain of events around the Israeli-Egyptian border designed to shake the peace treaty with Israel. Expected Israeli intervention would then be labeled as "aggression" that would serve as a pretext for the treaty’s cancellation. The attack on the Egyptian security unit in Sinai interfered with this strategy and necessitated a response from the Muslim Brotherhood which blamed none other than Mossad.

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