The weekend terrorist attack in Sinai which killed 16 Egyptian border policemen has made clear that Egypt needs to preserve a strategic alliance with Israel to face a common enemy, namely al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups anxious to attack and destabilize both countries.
Suspected Islamists on Sunday evening attacked an Egyptian checkpoint, killed the troops, then stole two of their vehicles and tried to storm the fence at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel with the apparent goal of kidnapping an Israeli soldier or civilians.
The men loaded the truck with explosives and blew it up, killing the driver. Israeli planes scrambled and took out the armored vehicle and Israeli troops killed six or seven more of the attackers as they fled.
The situation in Sinai creates a dilemma for Egypt’s newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi. On one hand, Morsi comes out of a Muslim Brotherhood political tradition of deep hostility to Israel. He recently said he did not want there to be an impression of cooperation with Israel; nor did he want to strengthen security ties because Egyptian public opinion was opposed to this.
On the other, the reality is that Israel presents no strategic threat to Egypt and could be an important strategic ally. As Sunday’s attack makes clear, the real threat comes from al-Qaeda and other jihadists.
Morsi vowed his nation’s military would regain full control of the Sinai. “Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly,” said Morsi, according to the Guardian. “Clear orders have been given to our armed forces and police to chase and arrest those who carried out this assault on our children. The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel and Egypt obviously have a common interest in keeping the border quiet..”
As the State Department’s annual report on terrorism worldwide released last week made clear, the situation in the vast and sparsely-populated Sinai Peninsula has approached crisis point.
“The smuggling of humans, weapons, cash, and other contraband through the Sinai into Israel and Gaza created criminal networks with possible ties to terrorist groups in the region. The smuggling of weapons from Libya through Egypt has increased since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime,” the report said.
The warning signs were clear on August 18, 2011, when a series of shooting and suicide attacks on cars and buses in southern Israel by terrorists who entered Israel from the Sinai killed eight and injured 40.
Moreover, the report added, Iranian-backed Hamas has successfully smuggled long-range rockets from Sinai through tunnels into Gaza and subsequently began producing rockets capable of striking Tel Aviv suburbs.
The ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 created a power vacuum in Sinai which was quickly filled by jihadists. According to Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, they joined local Bedouin, many of whom felt alienated from the central government and hoped to improve economic conditions in their underdeveloped region through activities such as cross-border smuggling.
These Bedouin, especially those in the northeast and the mountainous central areas, are well armed and increasingly influenced by extreme Islamist ideology. They cooperate closely with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups from Gaza, who have established a foothold in Sinai and recruited local tribesmen for various operations.
“Egyptian authorities have evidently lost effective control over large parts of Sinai, and the peninsula has become a no man’s land. In the past eighteen months, militant Egyptian and Palestinian groups have attacked dozens of police stations, checkpoints, and government institutions there, killing several policemen, while the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline in northern Sinai has been sabotaged 14 times, Herzog wrote back in June.
According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, there are al-Qaeda forces in Sinai from Yemen, Iraq, Syria and other Arab and Muslim countries supported by the local Bedouin. Meanwhile, various other terror groups in the Gaza Strip are assisting them and smuggling arms and goods into the Strip.
The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the Sinai body tasked with monitoring the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, has also been targeted by these jihadists — by 187 live-fire incidents between January and May of this year.
The fall of Qaddafi in Libya created a bonanza for weapons smugglers. Among the most dangerous weapons taken from unsecured dumps in Libya are advanced SA-24 shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles.
Israel is trying to cope with the new situation through various means, including constructing a new security fence.Its border guards were well-prepared for Sunday’s attack. Its forces reacted swiftly and forcefully, neutralizing the threat with no losses. In contrast, the Egyptians were totally unprepared and were caught by surprise.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the attack a “wake-up call” for Egypt. Not only do they need to tighten their procedures; they also need to figure out who are their friends and who are their enemies.