TSG IntelBriefs: Emerging Threats from al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula
March 4, 2013
As of early March 2013, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the desert expanse between Israel and the mainland of Egypt, is increasingly populated with al Qaeda-linked Salafist militants who pose a major terrorist threat to both countries. A desolate and impoverished region, with a population of about 500,000 comprised largely of Bedouins, the Sinai Peninsula has been a lawless desert in the post-Mubarak era, one that has evolved into an ideal safe haven for al Qaeda-linked terrorists to recruit new operatives from neighboring states, particularly Egypt and Yemen.
These Salafist militants have also joined with Sinai's long-entrenched Bedouin criminal networks to smuggle arms to their fighters, most notably from Sudan and Libya. Arms smuggling has long been profitable to the Bedouins, who have a history of moving weapons into Gaza to replenish Hamas's military arsenal.
In prior years, under the authoritarian regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the small number of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists that had attempted to settle in the Sinai were kept mostly in check, with relative peace prevailing along the Israeli border. Beginning in early 2011, however, they began to attack the Arab Gas Pipeline that runs through the Sinai and exports Egyptian natural gas to Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.
After Mubarak's downfall in February 2011, most Egyptian forces were deployed away from the region to focus on the country's mounting domestic unrest. This left security to a handful of local paramilitary police and tribal authorities that continued to cooperate with the new Egyptian authorities. The threat further escalated when some 200-300 Salafists — prisoners who had been released from Egyptian prisons after the fall of Mubarak — joined forces with Bedouin elements to establish an al Qaeda affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. As these militant elements coalesced, they pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the presumptive al Qaeda leader, who endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets. These al Qaeda-linked groups were subsequently joined by foreign Islamist militants, including individuals from Somalia and Yemen, bringing their number to roughly 1,500 armed operatives.
The militants have been able to exert some degree of local authority in the Sinai by settling tribal disputes among the Bedouins. Further, they have tried to radicalize Bedouins by exploiting their grievances, especially their suspicion of government, and by promoting separatist messages with radical Salafist undertones. According to credible sources, these Islamists have established terrorist training facilities in the Sinai and gained strategic control of several Bedouin towns. By leveraging their arms smuggling networks — and with the assistance of al Qaeda-affiliated networks in civil war-ravaged Libya and Yemen — the militants have been able to build a substantial arsenal that includes mortars and automatic weapons.
Threats Against the Multinational Force & Observers
Further magnifying the peninsula's instability is that the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) — a 1,650-strong international peacekeeping force stationed in the northern Sinai with the mission of enforcing the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accords (but not to provide local security) — has also come under attack by the al Qaeda-linked militants. In mid-September 2012, for example, the fighters attacked an MFO base, wounding four peacekeepers, torching a guard tower, and seizing ammunition and communications equipment.
Threats Against Egypt
Although Israel represents their primary adversary, these al Qaeda-linked cells have attacked Egyptian targets in the Sinai since early 2011. Egyptian police stations have been attacked on multiple occasions, including in June 2012, when fighters drove into the center of El-Arish, the administrative capital of northern Sinai, attacking its police station, and briefly capturing the town. This was followed by a more serious incident in August 2012 when cell members killed 16 Egyptian soldiers during an attack on a border post, after which they proceeded to breach Israel's security fence using a stolen armored car.
In response, the Egyptian government — with Israeli consent — deployed military forces into previously demilitarized zones in northern Sinai in mid-August 2012.
As mentioned above, soon after the fall of Mubarak, these militants launched a campaign involving more than a dozen bombings of the natural gas pipelines transporting gas through Sinai to Israel and Jordan. Such bombings have been publicly praised by al-Zawahiri.
Other terrorist attacks on Egyptian interests in the Sinai include a late November 2012 explosion at an Egyptian intelligence building in Rafah, near the Gaza Strip, and an attempted car bombing of an Egyptian military camp, also in Rafah, in January 2013. In mid-February 2013, an Egyptian security service seized a truck that was transporting two tons of explosives headed to the Sinai Peninsula.
Threats Against Israel
Al Qaeda-linked fighters in the Sinai have carried out several attacks against their primary target, Israel. These included an attack in August 2011 near the Israeli resort town of Eilat, when twelve militants dressed as Egyptian soldiers launched a cross-border attack on a bus that killed eight Israelis and wounded 30. During the Israeli counterattack, Israeli forces inadvertently killed five Egyptian soldiers. Egyptians responded with demonstrations demanding the closing of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and abrogating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. This was followed by an attack on the Israeli Embassy.
According to unsubstantiated media reports, Israel dispatched four Mossad agents into the Sinai in August 2012 — allegedly assisted by Bedouin trackers — to locate one of the radical Islamist leaders involved in the Eilat terrorist attack. The target, Ibrahim Ouda Bereikat (also known as Ibrahim Nasser), was later reportedly killed by an Israeli drone while he was riding a motorcycle in northern Sinai about 15 kilometers from the Israeli border.
To prevent further attacks against it by the al Qaeda-linked militants, Israel was expected to complete construction of a security fence along the 125-long Sinai border in early 2013.
Threats Against Hamas
The Salafist militants in the Sinai are also linked to their Palestinian counterparts in the Gaza Strip, where a small minority has embraced al Qaeda's militancy. The extent of their operational cooperation, however, is uncertain. In Gaza, these Salafists are known as the Army of Islam (led by Moumtaz Dighmush), the Army of the Nation (led by Ismail Hamid), and the Jaljalat Group, all of which reject Hamas's rule. Although these Salafist Palestinians do not pose a serious threat to Hamas's hegemony in Gaza, they have been able to attract other disillusioned Hamas followers with their mix of religious fervor, extremist militancy, and occasional rocket attacks against Israel.
Also available: The Soufan Group's world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at: email@example.com
Copyright © 2012 The Soufan Group llc, All rights reserved.
410 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022