Tracking Sources of Sinai Terror, All Roads Lead to Gaza

Israelis and Egyptians alike believe the sources of terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula can be traced to the Gaza strip. Because last week's attack was likely planned for months, it highlights serious intelligence failures in the region, Alex Fishman writes.

al-monitor Egyptian security forces arrest suspected militants after a firefight at the al-Goura settlement in Egypt's north Sinai region, about 15 km (10 miles) from the border with Israel, August 12, 2012. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

tunnels, terror, sinai, morsi, hamas, gaza, egypt, bedouin

Aug 13, 2012

The map of terrorist organizations in Sinai includes dozens of groups scattered across far-reaching territories. Some of the bases are connected to external groups: al-Qaeda branches from Iran and Yemen, World Jihad, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, last but not least, Gaza. Egypt promised to "take care of" these organizations, but nothing happened. Even the reprisals it carried out last week in retaliation for a terrorist attack on August 5 in the Sinai peninsula were weak, and a serious operation to cleanse the area is still very far off.

The burnt standard battalion machine gun found close to the Egyptian armored personnel carrier was stolen from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It could have reached Sinai from Gaza or the Negev. Egyptian intelligence that received the terrorists' bodily remains reported that it wore military shoes “made in Palestine” — in other words, from Gaza or the West Bank. And the moment that the Egyptians identify and publicize that the items used by the terrorists were “made in Palestine,” they already have an address in hand: they blame the Palestinians — mainly the Gazans — for collaboration with the Sinai terrorist organizations.

No traces remain of the terrorists who had manned the booby-trapped pickup truck. Four burned bodies were found in the armored personnel carrier and close to it. Two terrorists who succeeded in escaping the vehicle were hit by a rocket fired from the air and that, evidently, activated the explosive belts they wore on their bodies. The tree under which they hid was colored with blood. The remains cannot be identified. The Israeli and Egyptian intelligence services concur that the perpetrators were evidently Bedouin residents of Sinai. Nevertheless, the Israelis and Egyptians are convinced that the attack bears the heavy Gaza footprint.

Israeli security forces state decisively, “It is inconceivable that an attack was perpetrated from Sinai without having a connection to the Gaza Strip.” In an analysis of the terrorist attacks that occurred on the Israel-Egyptian border over the last two years, it emerged that all roads lead to Gaza. The logistics, the training, the instructions, the money — or all of the above — had to have emerged from Gaza.

Today, the Israeli defense system talks about between 10 and 20 terror alerts in the southern zone. A large percentage of them are “combined attack alerts” — the type that begin in Gaza, then shift in Sinai toward the direction of the Israeli border. Shin Bet (GSS), Israel's internal security service, is the major entity charged with collecting intelligence on the terror cells operating in Sinai. Over the last year, the GSS has been deployed near the Egyptian border in a similar to that in which it has been deployed for many years in Gaza. The intel-gathering process in Sinai is still far from the more comprehensive “coverage” of Gaza, but the enormous investments and organizational changes carried out by the GSS vis-à-vis the Egyptian zone are beginning to bear fruit.

The shock effect

Not by chance, Commander of the Southern Brigade of the Gaza Division Tal Hermoni erected concrete-slab obstacles on the border crossing with Egypt, close to Kerem Shalom Army base. He knew exactly where to expect trouble, and posted his forces accordingly. Tal Russo of the OC Southern Command remained close to the Kerem Shalom crossing that night. True, he was there to approve other plans, but he kept his eyes in the direction of the Egyptian border. All the forces in the area knew, and waited for this attack.

The booby-trapped pickup truck that carried half a ton of explosives was supposed to move first, before the armored personnel carrier. The plan was to infiltrate the army base in Kerem Shalom, to blow up in its center and exact a tremendous loss of life. The armored personnel carrier was supposed to enter immediately afterward, to liquidate anyone left and then kidnap a soldier, civilian or even bodies — whatever they could find. At least 10 terrorists remained behind on Egyptian territory; they comprised the command cell and the terror cell that fired mortars to provide cover for the incursion of the vehicles.

The objective was to create a shock effect — on the Israeli as well as Egypt side — that would lead to regional chaos: The Gaza border would burn, the Egyptian border would burn, Israeli-Egyptian relations would be severed, and enough fury and anarchy would rage in Egypt to possibly topple President Mohammed Morsi.

Prior intelligence and the responsive measures taken by Israel not only saved the lives of scores of Israelis but averted a severe deterioration in relations of the entire region. A very simple measure — the placement of concrete obstacles by the Southern Brigade commander — forced the booby-trapped truck to maneuver around them, after which it sunk into the sand and overturned. The Israeli side then aimed its fire at the truck and it exploded. From this point on, the armored personnel carrier raced around aimlessly, under Israel eyes, along three kilometers of Israeli territory. Finally, the Israelis opened fire to stop and disable the vehicle when it was safe to do so without endangering civilians in the area.

Meanwhile, the partial success of the attack led to governmental tremors in Egypt. The Supreme Council of Military Forces (SCAF) and the president's office realized that they had to make a sacrifice in response to the public outcry and to let a few heads roll after the Sinai massacre. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the SCAF, agreed and together, they sacrificed Egyptian Intelligence Minister Murad Muwafi. They also fired another three generals: the governor of northern Sinai, the head of central security of Northern Sinai and the head of the military police. [Editor's Note: This was before the retirements of August 13.]

Israel received the news of Muwafi’s dismissal with apprehension. Another relic from the old regime, another official they could talk to — gone with the wind. Morsi, for his part, chalked up another victory in his struggle to oust the relics of the wilderness generation. He used Egyptian public opinion to exploit the weaknesses of Egypt’s high-echelon military brass, and to settle his accounts with them.

These dismissals were aimed at placating the Egyptian public, because the retaliatory measures adopted by the Egyptian army in Sinai on the heels of the terror attack were weak to say the least. Those weak measures were light-years away from constituting a serious campaign to cleanse Sinai of terror agents. The Egyptians employed small forces in several Sinai regions. In the el-Arish area of northern Sinai, two infantry companies in armored cars and two tank platoons took action. Simultaneously, two assault helicopters conducted airstrikes and then returned to Egypt after quickly making the rounds. This was, more or less, the Egyptian “strike force.”

The Egyptians also took symbolic action near the Jura airport, situated about 15 kilometers from the Israeli border; where the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) base has long suffered from Bedouin attacks. Evidently, there were also two small additional centers of Egyptian activity. It was not even the shadow of an extensive operation. Instead, it was a staged performance for an Egyptian public that clamored for vengeance and dead bodies. And, by the way, any change in the status quo between Egypt and Israel — such as flying in assault helicopters — was done in full coordination with Israel. Egyptian requests for additional military forces in Sinai are being examined thoroughly. Israel claims that Egypt does not even make use of the force that is already present in the north and center of Sinai, a force that Israel gave its permission for in the past.

The closure of the Rafah border crossing will also end soon. The Egyptian president will not withstand the pressure of the Muslim Brotherhood to end the collective punishment of the Gaza Strip. Unintentionally, the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the Egyptian army are paying the price of democracy. When there is freedom of the press and of expression, it is no longer possible to block criticism. When Egyptian public opinion demands that action be taken, it is taken — if only for outward appearances.

The main ire of the Egyptian regime is directed against Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military chief. Ironically, Jabari had become the pampered child of Egyptian intelligence over the last few months. In contrast to what was allowed in the past, Jabari’s men have recently been allowed to enter and exit from Gaza and travel to Cairo freely. Jabari himself spent a month in a Cairo hospital due to back problems. Former intelligence chief General Muwafi had an agreement with Jabari: Under no condition would a terrorist attack emerge from Sinai to harm Egyptian soldiers, or an attack from Sinai against Israel that would embarrass the Egyptians, without Jabari first notifying Egypt about it.

Egypt had no doubts: Hamas knew about the preparations for the attack from Sinai, and the attack itself was connected in some way to Gaza. But Jabari betrayed them. They are convinced that Jabari knew about the attack and did not warn them.

And by the way, the Bedouins are the first to get wind of changes in the state of mind of the Egyptian authorities. Today, being a resident of Gaza in Sinai is dangerous. The Bedouins are chasing them away and accusing them of causing their hardships with the Egyptian authorities.

Haniyeh’s troubles

The terrorist attack that took place last Monday [August 6] had been in its planning stages for at least two months. Usually, “high-quality operations” of this type are executed by a group of fighters collected from various terror bases in Sinai. Whoever plans and commands an attack collects the people according to their vocations and devotion to the cause. From his point of view, this is an elite group.

In preparation for last week’s attack, a group of 15-20 men concentrated in a Bedouin village only a few kilometers from the border with Israel and began training. Money was needed to house the people, to feed them and to buy weapons. It was also necessary to acquire half a ton of explosives and install them in the vehicle  — this was accomplished deep in Sinai, without interference. Simultaneously, the group was involved in collecting intelligence along the border with Israel to uncover its weak points. They trained day and night and are also photographed. Someday in the future, we may even see the film on one of the World Jihad sites.

To the Bedouin residents of the place, it was clear that these people were foreigners. It is even possible that the slain Egyptian soldiers had been acquainted with some of them when they wandered around the area. Someone gave them money, instructions and equipment. There's no doubt that the people who were in touch with the terrorist-group members throughout the long preparations, exited and entered Gaza via the Rafah tunnels under the border. Hamas had to know about it. The Egyptians were willing to swallow affronts to their sovereignty from the direction of Gaza, but only up to a point. When the Gazans tried out their long-range rockets from Gaza into Sinai, the Egyptians swallowed their pride and kept silent. Until Israel complained, they did nothing about it. But to be involved in a provocation that humiliated Egyptian honor? That was unforgivable.

About a week ago [July 26], when Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt, he received hugs, kisses and promises for benefits he only dreamed about — mainly concerning freedom of movement from Gaza to Egypt. But in secret meetings with Egypt’s highest echelons, including the President, he was told point-blank: Egypt — even Morsi’s Egypt — would not tolerate any military action that would embarrass it, harm its sovereignty or drag it into violent confrontations with Israel.

Haniyeh was shocked. And if that wasn’t enough, his rival Khaled Mashaal showed up in Cairo too and unfurled his plan for transforming Hamas into a political movement with a diplomatic, not military, emphasis. The Egyptians adopted the concept because that is what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked for. With regard to Hamas in Gaza, that is an inconceivable demand. After the attack, when Egypt pointed its accusing finger at Haniyeh, Haniyeh’s discomfiture turned into outright distress.

With the help of Gaddafi’s missiles

All attempts to draw a clear map of terrorist organizations in Sinai are destined to fail, because Sinai has been neglected by Israel for many years as a target for intelligence gathering. Nevertheless, Western intelligence bodies are aware of several dozens of bases, scattered across extensive territories. Each of these bases hosts between 15 and 20 people. The number of armed fighters in Sinai, together with Jihad bases in Gaza, reaches a few hundred people.

Some of these bases are connected to organizations that exist outside of Sinai, such as Gaza, World Jihad and al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Yemen. They are also funded by various means. One of the important backers of these terror bases is the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah organization, which has opened an anti-Israel front from Sinai and rides the Sunni World Jihad wave to achieve its goals.

Among the Sinai terror organizations is Takfir wal-Hijra, an Egyptian terror organization founded in 1960. Due to persecution by the authorities, its members escaped to the Gaza Strip. The large base in Sinai was erected by the organization’s imprisoned members who fled a Egyptian prison in the early days of the Egyptian revolution. This is the organization that is suspected of carrying out the attack last Monday.

This terrorist attack is very similar — in its general outlines, preparations and weapons — to the attack carried out on Road 12 in August 2011. According to the Muslim calendar, the dates of the two attacks are very close. Both took place during the Ramadan period, and evidently the dates have additional significance to the organization. This is an extremist organization that views even Morsi as an infidel. Therefore, its members had no problem slaughtering Egyptian soldiers during Ramadan. As far as they are concerned, the soldiers were infidels.

Another organization with branches in Sinai but is based in Gaza is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam), the extremist Salafi group that abducted Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped on Israeli territory in 2006. Its activities mainly revolve around weapons smuggling. It includes about 200 fighters, most of whom are in Gaza. It is believed that the terror group is funded by the Hezbollah department dealing with Israeli Arabs and the West Bank.

An additional Salafi group in Sinai is Da’wa Salafiya. This is an extremist group that attempts to bring Bedouins into the bosom of Islam, and deals mainly with providing spiritual support. It is a foundation for nurturing extremist elements among the Bedouin. Another organization is Tawhid wal-Jihad, which champions violent resistance to every regime that does not accept the extremist Salafi viewpoint, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The head of the organization, Hisham Al-Saidni, was released a week ago from the Hamas prison in Gaza without any logical explanation. There are also sub-organizations within the popular resistance committees in Gaza that have branches in Sinai.

These organizations are roughly divided into two groups: World Jihad organizations with global Salafi ideology, and organizations rooted in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose ideology is close to that of the Palestinians. Both groups have one common denominator: the destruction of Israel.

Foreign terrorists who circulate in Sinai — from Libya, the Maghreb (northwest Africa), Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia — are usually affiliated with World Jihad organizations. Since the fall of Gaddafi, they have received a boost in the form of new weapons that had not existed before in Sinai; these include advanced anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles. The Pentagon has already spent $50 million in an attempt to map the firearms found in Gaddafi’s storehouses and try to prevent their disappearance from Libya. But there’s no point in locking the barn door when the horses have already escaped. While the Pentagon is still searching for hundreds of antiaircraft missiles, a large percentage of them have evidently reached Sinai.

From Israel’s point of view, the Egyptians have not really woken up from their slumber. The dangers from the border have not lessened. Egyptian army contacts had promised Israel in the past to handle the World Jihad terror organizations in Sinai. Three months ago, they said, "We can do it after the presidential elections. Till then, we need these elite forces to defend the public in the large cities." Then the elections passed, and nothing was done. The Egyptians aren’t moving. Only this week, after 16 Egyptian soldiers were murdered, did the first voices emerge for taking real anti-terror steps.

Egypt still has not crossed the line into giving priority to the Sinai Peninsula. The terror in Sinai is a consequence of discrimination against the Bedouin residents: they are poverty-stricken, uneducated and without access to medical care. There is no chance that Egypt will be able to allocate funds to improve the standard of living in Sinai, and therefore there will not be special army forces there. Thus the problems in Sinai will not be addressed in the depth they deserve.

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