Israel Security Official Meets Egyptian Counterparts in Cairo as Shin Bet Counts 15 Sinai Terror Groups, 4 Violent
A senior Israeli security official met a small group of his Egyptian counterparts for several hours in Cairo on Tuesday to discuss mounting terrorist violence in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Masrawy news site said, based on a report from subscription-only German news agency DPA.
DPA, citing sources at Cairo International Airport, said the Israeli and Egyptian security officials discussed the latest developments in the Sinai, coordination to protect the Sinai’s Eastern border with Israel, new strategy to curtail heightened terrorist activity that has plagued the Sinai since the ouster of Islamist Egyptian President Muhamed Morsi nearly two months ago and yesterday’s brazen ambush and execution of 25 Egyptian policemen.
Tuesday’s meeting reflects the deepening collaboration between the two security forces over common trouble in the Sinai, where Israel’s Shin Bet security service now counts 15 Salafist terror groups operating from the desert, with four seen as being especially violent, Israel’s Haaretz daily reported, citing unnamed sources at the security agency.
Haaretz listed the four groups and described their most recent crimes: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, is known for firing rockets at Eilat, most recently last week; Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, killed an Israeli civilian last year; Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, was behind the August 2012 attack that killed 16 Egyptian police; and Jaish al-Islam, founded by the Dughmush clan from Gaza involved in kidnapping IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and now active in the Sinai, is seeking to kidnap Israeli tourists.
To fight the threat, Haaretz reported that the Shin Bet has created a new unit that will focus solely on the Sinai, with “resources and manpower on a par with those devoted to thwarting attacks north of Ramallah in the West Bank – and some sources say they are even greater.” Israel’s Channel 10 reported that the new unit is part of a reorganization of existing resources from across silos.
Under the new arrangement, the IDF’s intelligence branch will be responsible for collecting intelligence from Sinai balloons, cameras stationed along the Sinai border fence and satellite photographs, while the Shin Bet team will focus on preventing planned attacks from being carried out.
Estimates of the total number of terrorist operatives in the Sinai range from “several hundred” according to the Shin Bet to “a few thousand” according to Israeli Military Intelligence, Haaretz said. While the terrorist forces include leaders from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and especially the Gaza Strip, most of their foot soldiers are Sinai Bedouin who have become radicalized, Haaretz’s sources said.
“The proliferation of Salafi groups, affiliated with the global jihad movement, in Sinai, is a development of the last three to five years. The Sinai Bedouin were for years relatively secular, but they have recently undergone a process of accelerated Islamization. Israeli intelligence sources cite several reasons for this, including increased exposure to the Internet in general and Islamist websites in particular, the arrival of foreign clerics, and their growing alienation from the central government in Cairo,” Haaretz reported.
Gaza has become an international center for Salafi terrorist training, the newspaper cited the sources as saying. The senior official cited in the report said that many Sinai training camps are run by Mumtaz Dughmush, the head of Jaish al-Islam. Haaretz cited its source as saying that Hamas has agreed to let training camps operate in Gaza in exchange for Dughmush’s promise that neither the operatives who train there nor Jaish al-Islam itself will operate from the Gaza Strip.
“We thought experienced global jihad operatives from Afghanistan and Iraq would come to Sinai, and from there to Gaza, but in practice, the operatives from Gaza are the ones who taught the operatives in Sinai everything they know,” the source told Haaretz. “The Salafi operatives from Gaza are all breakaways from Hamas and Islamic Jihad who know the IDF well and have accumulated much more combat experience than the operatives from Sinai … The Gaza operatives are an operational asset, because they know how to plan and supervise attacks.”
In terms of cooperation with Egypt, Haaretz’s sources said Israel’s coordination with the Egyptian security services is good, “but there’s still a feeling that the Egyptians are acting hesitantly against the Sinai Salafis and are afraid to confront them directly. The senior official said the Egyptians are focusing mainly on the terrorist infrastructure – destroying tunnels to Gaza, uncovering arms caches in Sinai and thwarting arms smuggling around the Suez Canal – rather than taking action against the terrorists themselves.”
“Most of the people involved in the attack that slaughtered 16 Egyptian policemen [in August 2012] are still walking around free in Sinai, and that broadcasts weakness. The Egyptians understand that the situation in Sinai and Gaza is a threat to their national security. Their activity in Sinai is improving, but they still haven’t gone the last mile,” the source told Haaretz.
Tuesday’s bilateral meeting came just days after an online outcry in Egypt over the weekend sparked by a post on a Facebook page created by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood party which re-published a UN photograph from 2011 of a friendly embrace between Egyptian intelligence official General Amir al Damogy and Israeli counterpart General Assaf Orion, enraging Egyptian readers who objected to the high-level collaboration. The Facebook page, titled “Brotherhood Intelligence Agency (ASA),” has a large following of 151,000 “likes” and declared deepening military cooperation between the two countries as “traitorous.”
Specific military cooperation was reported this month when the Associated Press cited two senior Egyptian security officials as saying an Israeli drone strike in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai killed five suspected terrorists preparing to launch rockets into Israel. AFP cited the Egyptian military as saying that it coordinated the strike with the Israel Defense Forces.
“The attack was preceded by communications between senior Israeli security officials and their Egyptian counterparts” who “discussed the threat posed by the rocket crew and response options,” the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Western officials cited by the WSJ said, “The understanding on both sides is that Israel will take direct action only as a last resort if the Egyptians aren’t in a position to stop an imminent threat from the Sinai,” adding that “such an Israeli intervention would be ‘very rare’ because of Egyptian sensitivities.”
The WSJ said Egypt’s new national security adviser, Raafat Shehata, and General Nader al-Aasar, who was recently promoted to head Egyptian intelligence’s international relations branch, both have ties to Israeli intelligence, and “helped facilitate the agreement between Egypt and Israel to make an exception to the three-decade-old Camp David peace treaty and allow Egypt to send a surge of military forces into the Sinai to combat the growing militant threat there,” according to Western officials cited by the Journal.