The Sinai Peninsula is becoming interesting…
In the year since Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled, most of the world’s attention has been focused on Cairo and the Nile heartland of Egypt. This is not surprising or inappropriate… The future of the Arab world’s most populous country is being determined in the struggle between the army and the revolutionaries, as well as in elections for parliament and the presidency and this is more than a little relevant to the region and the world at large.
However, there have also been important developments in Egypt’s eastern frontier, the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai, the land bridge between Africa and Asia, is also the gateway to Gaza and Israel from Egypt. Armies have crossed it for centuries – including Egypt and Israel which fought over it from 1948 to 1979.
The Sinai began to pop up on my radar when I started hearing from various sources about the explosion in smuggling activity through the Sinai following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year in Cairo. However, when an aspiring al Qaeda affiliate first calling itself Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula and then Ansar al Jihad announced its presence in the Sinai Peninsula, I moved the Sinai to the the top of the list as things were obviously hotting up there.
Ansar al Jihad formally announced its existence on December 20th, 2011 with a statement in which they claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks and announced:
“With this message we send you the good tidings of the birth of the group ‘Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula,’ and we pledge unto Allah the Great and Almighty to do our best to fight the corrupt regime and its henchmen among the Jews, the Americans, and those around them.”
The group vowed “to fulfill the oath of the martyr of the Ummah, our Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him: ‘I swear by Allah the Great who raised the sky without pillars, that America nor those who live in America will ever enjoy security as long as we don’t live it in reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the Land of Muhammad ….
The Islamic nation can clearly see how Muslims in Egypt, particularly in Sinai, suffered from the oppression of Hosni Mubarak and his criminal allies, the so-called Israel, occupier of Palestine, as well as the great enemy of Islam, the cursed Americans.
Now, the wealth of Egypt’s land is cheaply donated to the bitterest enemies of religion, Israel [Eds. Note: This is a reference to the perception of many Egyptians that Egypt’s gas deal with Israel, signed in the Mubarak era, allows Israel to obtain Egyptian natural gas without paying a fair price for it.], in order to please the biggest enemy of Islam, America. Mubarak, lover of crime and murder, suppressed protests against him, threw protesters in prisons that are like tombs and arbitrarily arrested our Sunni and Salafi brothers on the grounds that they threaten the security of the state.”
Now, to fully explain what is going on here, we need to back up a bit and cover the Bedouins and the economy of the Sinai.
Let’s start with the Bedouins… I believe all of our readers know who the Bedouins are, but just in case someone reading this does not – the Bedouins are a primarily nomadic people of Arab descent that live in some of the harshest deserts of the world. They are a very proud people that make wonderful, loyal friends and terrible enemies.
A Bedouin camp in the Sinai:
The Bedouins have long been at odds with the government in Cairo. They feel both neglected and discriminated against by Egyptian society and complain that they do not see the benefits of tourist development along the Red Sea.
This provides a good segue into the economy of the Sinai…
The Sinai is a desert. And a remote, barren one at that. So, historically, the only way to make money in the Sinai has been through smuggling and tourism along the Red Sea.
The Egyptian government is acutely aware of the value of tourism to the Sinai economy and even allows visitors access to a special tourist zone along the eastern coast of the Sinai without the need for a visa.
However, the economic dynamics of the Sinai have been turned on their head following the recent political upheaval. Tourism along the Red Sea has absolutely collapsed. People read about the “revolution” in Egypt and are scared away. Subsequent riots, kidnappings and general turmoil have not helped soothe the nerves of these Nervous Nellies… Thus, a major pillar of the Sinai economy has been knocked out.
An abandoned luxury hotel in Sinai near the town of Nuweiba:
One of the empty beaches in Sinai… 18 months ago this beach was swarming with tourists:
Deserted and decaying tourist infrastructure along the Sinai Peninsula:
As mentioned above, the other pillar of the Sinai economy is smuggling. Smuggling and crime are rampant among the Bedouin tribes.
During the revolution last February, police stations in the Sinai were abandoned or attacked and looted by disaffected Bedouins. The Egyptian police have never been very welcome here, and in the time since the Egyptian revolution they have all but vanished, essentially leaving local Bedouin tribes to provide the only law and order.
Now, one would think that with the collapse of the police and military presence in the Sinai that smuggling would be booming. Well, it is. Too much so, in fact.
Smuggling is now so easy that all of its profits have evaporated. What makes smuggling lucrative is transporting a scarce commodity through a difficult landscape to a final buyer willing to pay a lot for the hard to obtain item.
However, now anyone can smuggle goods across the Sinai to the point where an outside observer wouldn’t even know it was illegal. And so the market is flooded with cars, guns, drugs, etc. It’s too much of a good thing for the Bedouins (And a strong argument for the legalization of contraband elsewhere, but that’s another discussion)…
Thus, the second pillar of the Sinai economy has been knocked out as well.
Just because most of the profits from smuggling have collapsed, however, that does not mean that the smuggling has stopped completely…
It is somewhat difficult to delve into the world of smuggling, but we did it. After we had made friends with the locals in the Sinai and were checked out, a few discreet inquiries brought us into contact with some Bedouin smugglers desperate for a little extra money. They reluctantly agreed to show us the ropes providing we promised not to reveal their faces or anything other than their first names.
Setting off with the smugglers… Ibrahim is driving and Samar is in the passenger seat:
Technically, we are strictly forbidden from entering the region of the Sinai that we were taken into. And the roads across the Sinai where these checkpoints are found are one of the few areas of the Sinai in which the Egyptian government still maintains a presence, even if it is a largely symbolic one. However, a little intimidation coupled with a little money changing hands, swept us right through checkpoints such as this:
The landscape of the Sinai is not one of rolling sand dunes as many imagine. Rather, it is one of rugged mountains and deep canyons:
In other words, this is a prime landscape for smugglers…
Ibrahim and Samar agreed to take us along some of their smuggling routes and to show us how it all works:
These canyons provide great paths for the smugglers to snake through the landscape… The smugglers do not always use these routes. Obviously, the preferred method is to simply drive right up to the border with Gaza or Israel and swap the smuggled goods from the back of a jeep. However, until the past year, this was much easier said than done.
Traditionally, the smugglers have been forced to make their way across the desert through narrow canyons and winding trails:
Samar taking us on a smuggler’s trail they used often before the past year changed everything:
The smugglers spoke nostalgically of the profits from smuggling before the Egyptian “revolution” took place and said they hoped more Egyptian police and military forces would be moved into the Sinai so they could start making money again. They indicated they would simply transition back to using these trails if security improves in the Sinai:
Ibrahim assured me that they do not discriminate when it comes to smuggling. They’re willing to smuggle people, animals, narcotics, weapons, medicine – whatever pays the best. And they don’t care much who the customer is either… I joked with Ibrahim and Samar about smuggling for Israel or America and they told me, in all seriousness, that they’d love to do business with them.
Although overall profits from smuggling may have collapsed, Ibrahim informed me that obtaining and transporting heavy weaponry is still lucrative as such war machinery is highly desired.
The entire smuggling pipeline is awash with weapons, many coming from stockpiles opened up since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, but also from Libyan rebels that received weapons from foreign supporters, including the governments of France and Qatar.
In October of 2011, David Kirkpatrick reported for the New York Times that Egyptian Interior Ministry officials had arrested five groups of smugglers in the Sinai Peninsula over the preceding months that were transporting weapons from Libya, including antiaircraft missiles and rocket propelled grenades, toward the border with Israel. One wonders how many groups got through…
Although AK-47 assault rifles are relatively ubiquitous across the Sinai, the presence of antiaircraft missiles and antiarmor weapons is a worrisome development to the Israelis because they can be fired on the aircraft Israel relies on to patrol Gaza and conduct airstrikes.
Ibrahim told me that Hamas and other militant groups want these weapons and they can pay for them. When I pressed him for more details about this, he realized what he had shared with me and became vague and claimed he’d just “heard about it”.
This flood of weapons following the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences…
Samar showing The Velvet Rocket another trail they use:
Oases in the desert offer a place for the smugglers to refill their canteens and find some shelter from the brutal afternoon sun:
Distances in the Sinai are long… Stopping to refuel the jeep from extra cans of gasoline we brought along:
Our picaresque guides ended the day by taking us down one of their more intense trails, which winds through a narrow canyon. The knowledge of these trails is passed down from generation to generation in Bedouin families, much in the same way family heirlooms or businesses are passed down by families in the West.
They have not had to use the route shown below following the revolt in Egypt last year, but had to use it on numerous occasions prior to that. Ibrahim and Samar don’t like this route because the smuggled goods must be carried on their backs through here. However, they informed us that the police have never watched this route and so during times of heavy police activity in the past, this would be the route they were forced to use in the area.
It may seem that this route is only for smaller items, but Ibrahim told me that his uncle had smuggled a tractor through here in the past.
“Yes, they took it apart and then brought it through piece by piece. Then they put it back together again on the other side.”
Never underestimate the Bedouin mind or the power of capitalism…
At the mouth of the canyon a small camp is set up for use by the Bedouin smugglers. The smugglers feel safer moving at night and it is certainly more comfortable than traveling during the heat of the day:
THE WILD EAST?
You might be wondering how all of this ties together.
With the collapse of both pillars of Sinai’s economy, there are a lot of desperate, unhappy people to be found in the Sinai. This can be a combustible mix by itself. However, the longstanding resentment of the Bedouins toward the Egyptian government is also adding tinder to this looming conflagration.
This resentment and desperation along with the strategic position of the Sinai has not gone unnoticed. And, in fact, militant activity in the Sinai has been increasing for several years now…
In October of 2004, three bombings tore through the Sinai, killing 34 people and injuring 171. One attack was in the town of Taba (on the border with Israel) where a truck was driven into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel and detonated, causing ten floors of the hotel to collapse.
The other attacks took place near the Egyptian town of Nuweiba where a car parked in front of a restaurant at the Moon Island resort and one parked in front of Baddiyah campground exploded.
In July of 2005, Sharm el-Sheikh, located at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and extremely popular with Italians, was targeted. 88 people were killed and more than 150 wounded in a series of bomb blasts that targeted a market in downtown Sharm el-Sheikh and a beachfront hotel – the Ghazala Gardens.
A group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades was the first to claim responsibility for the attacks. On a website the group stated that “holy warriors targeted the Ghazala Gardens hotel and the Old Market in Sharm el-Sheikh” and claimed ties to Al-Qaeda. Additional claims were later made by two other groups calling themselves the “Tawhid and Jihad Group in Egypt” and “Holy Warriors of Egypt”.
In April of 2006, the Egyptian seaside town of Dahab was hit by a series of bombings which killed 23 people and wounded at least 80. One blast occurred at the Nelson restaurant, one near the Aladdin cafe and one near the Ghazala market.
Later investigations revealed the blasts were suicide attacks, set off by Bedouins, as in earlier attacks in the Sinai. Egyptian security officials have stated that the attacks were the work of an organization called Jama’at al-Tawhīd wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad).
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, matters have intensified rather than subsided… But, the profile of the targets has changed. Much of that has to do with the collapse of tourism as bombing empty hotels and beaches is a fairly impotent gesture.
However, another factor is the increased strength of the group. Instead of suicide bombers sneaking in to attack vulnerable targets, Ansar al Jihad and other militants now feel empowered enough to attempt direct attacks on the Egyptian and Israeli governments.
Immediately following the ouster of Mubarak, hundreds of Islamic militants, many from Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad were freed or escaped from various Egyptian prisons. Zawahiri is, of course, the Egyptian who has replaced Osama bin Laden as emir of al Qaeda. He was the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before merging with al Qaeda in 2001. Zawahiri has long tried to rebuild the infrastructure of the militant underground he led in Egypt in the 1990s and now it would seem he has his chance.
Also freed in the jailbreaks were terrorists involved in the attacks on tourist hotels in the Sinai in 2005 and 2006.
The militants that escaped or were freed over the past 12 months have found a haven in the Sinai, where their global jihadist ideology seems to mix well with local Bedouin grievances.
A Bedouin camp deep in the Sinai:
The Bedouins are desperate and angry right now. They are desperate because of the collapse of the Sinai economy and they are angry because they feel this is part of the continuing neglect they have long experienced at the hands of the Egyptian government.
The Bedouins welcome the money showered on them by the militants for protection, safe passage and heavy weaponry. And both the Bedouins and the militants share a grudge against the Egyptian government. Is this loose Bedouin alliance with Islamic militants really any surprise then?
It’s an easy market for Ansar al Jihad and they have been quick to capitalize on it…
Almost immediately following the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, attacks against the Sinai pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan started.
The pipeline after one of many attacks:
In July of 2011, dozens of armed, masked men attacked a police station in the town of Arish in north Sinai. A shootout lasting for hours killed several civilians and left one officer dead.
The assailants escaped, but not before circulating pamphlets announcing a “Statement from al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.” The statement called for creating an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, implementing sharia law, breaking the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, halting discrimination against the Sinai’s Bedouin tribes and demanding Egyptian military intervention on behalf of the Hamas regime in Gaza.
In August of 2011, gunmen crossed the Egyptian border to attack Israel on its own soil… Below is a timeline and description of the attacks:
The original attacks occurred in three coordinated stages. They were carried out by 12 militants in four groups dispersed over an area 12 kilometers long. At least some of the attackers wore brown uniforms, similar to those used by the Egyptian Army.
The attacks commenced around 12:00 pm near the Ein Netafim spring, on Highway 12 from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat, when three militants spread out about 200 meters from one another, armed with suicide bomb vests, grenades, RPGs, and machine guns opened fire on a Egged passenger bus on line 392, carrying mostly soldiers but also some civilians.
Seven passengers were wounded, most of them soldiers. According to eyewitnesses, a white car was following the bus, and a group of people dressed in military uniforms got out and opened fire. The bus driver, Benny Belevsky, did not stop the bus and sped away, getting to an IDF post near the Netafim Border Crossing.
The militants, dressed in brown uniforms resembling those of the Egyptian Army, then began attacking passing vehicles, waving white handkerchiefs to fool motorists. One of the militants attacked a bus that drove by and detonated the suicide bomb belt he was wearing, killing himself and the bus driver, who had stopped the empty bus.
Another militant opened fire at a passing car and killed the female driver. The same militant then fired an RPG at an Israeli Air Force helicopter, but missed. An IDF jeep from the Golani Brigade then arrived at the scene and ran over the militant, killing him.
Another Golani Brigade jeep arrived, and ran over a roadside bomb. As the soldiers exited the damaged vehicle, the surviving militant opened fire at them. Soldiers and Yamam special police officers then located the militant and killed him in a gunbattle. Two other militants then opened fire at the from Egyptian territory. Israeli forces briefly crossed the border and killed both of the militants. One Israeli soldier was killed by friendly fire during the engagement and several soldiers were wounded. The Egyptian Army informed the IDF that its soldiers killed two more militants in the Sinai.
In the third attack, which occurred around 12:35, mortar shells were fired at soldiers carrying out routine maintenance work at the security fence constructed along the border between Israel and Egypt. No one was hurt in the attack.
Around 13:30, not far from the first shooting incident, militants opened fire, including with an anti-tank missile, at a bus and private car on route 90, a desert road near the border with Jordan. According to medics, five people were killed in the attacks. Seven people were wounded when another private vehicle was hit by an anti-tank missile. Eyewitnesses suggested that some of the attackers may have been wearing Egyptian Army uniforms.
Around 18:30, an Israeli patrol was fired on from the Egyptian border as it searched for militants. Israeli troops returned fire, and the shooting lasted for about an hour. A sniper from the Yamam special police unit was critically wounded and later died.
This is on the Israeli side of the border – along Highway 12 – approximately one kilometer from where most of the killing described above took place:
This is, unfortunately, as close as we could get as the Israelis have closed Highway 12 and just around the bend is an Israeli roadblock that is rigidly enforced:
More recently, it was reported by several news outlets that Ansar al Jihad/Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula has been establishing ties with Gaza-based Salafist groups and is seeking to coordinate operations.
On the 24th of January 2012, Ansar al Jihad swore allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri through the following statement released on the Sinam al Islam jihadist web forum:
“To our beloved emir and honorable sheikh, Abu Muhammad Ayman al Zawahiri … from your soldiers in the beloved Sinai in the Land of the Quiver [Egypt], we give you allegiance for obedience in good and bad, in difficulty and ease, and altruism,” the statement said. “So, throw us wherever you wish…. We will never quit or surrender until the last drop of our blood [is spilled] in the Cause of Allah and until Islam rules by the help of Allah the Almighty.”
The statement was signed by “Your soldiers in Ansar al Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula.”
This statement is significant as Ansar al Jihad is clearly angling for official al Qaeda sponsorship. Ayman al Zawahiri has publicly offered words of support for Ansar al Jihad, but has not yet endorsed the group as a formal franchise of al Qaeda.
Regardless of whether they receive al Qaeda’s sponsorship or not, The rise of Ansar al Jihad poses a ticklish problem for the Muslim Brotherhood…
Egypt’s elections, which began late last year and are still ongoing, allowed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party to obtain a clear majority in parliament.
However, as Muslim Brotherhood Islamists advance towards holding the reins of power, Islamists of a different brand (Ansar al Jihad) have emerged and seem determined to use violence to achieve their objectives. This is in contrast to the route taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and even jihadist groups such as the Islamic Group.
As Rajeh Said wrote on February 8th of this year,
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s disapproval of al-Qaeda’s methods is not new. What’s new, however, is that the two trends in Islamist ideology will confront each other for the first time since the Arab spring led to changes that enabled Islamists to reach power in more than one Arab country, such as Tunisia and Morocco, with Islamists in Egypt apparently following in their footsteps.
An alliance, or at least an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda by an active organisation in Egypt constitutes a clear challenge to any government in that country. Such a local group could resort to attacks against Westerners (a favorite target of al-Qaeda), inflicting serious damage to the tourism sector on which the Egyptian economy is based, including the economy of Sinai, where the most prominent Egyptian coastal tourist resorts are located.
The threat posed by Ansar al-Jihad’s position on internal Egyptian matters is as serious as its outward link to al-Qaeda, if not more, because it compromises the national fabric of Egypt, and specifically the relationship between Muslims and Copts.
The group posted clearly stated positions on its website on the relationship of Muslims with the Copts and the form of the Egyptian state that differ greatly from the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even the Salafist’s stated positions.
In a statement, Ansar al-Jihad said the Copts have to pay taxes to their Muslims rulers under an Islamic state in Egypt.
It also criticised unnamed groups that do not espouse a ‘religious state’ in Egypt, in a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly said it wants a civil, not a religious state.”
What could possibly make things more exciting here? Why not throw a radioactive “dirty” bomb into the mix? Yes, that’s right. In January of 2012, in a development that has spooked the region, radioactive materials contained within calibration devices were stolen from a controversial Egyptian nuclear power plant under construction in Dabaa. The identities of the thieves are unknown, but it is possible that they are local Bedouins, who have been vandalizing and violently protesting against the plant, which is being built on land taken from them without compensation.
Israel is concerned that these materials will be transferred into the Sinai where they could be used to construct a “dirty” bomb which could then be smuggled into Israel.
A “dirty” bomb, of course, is an ordinary bomb composed of ordinary explosives, to which radioactive material is added. The explosion of the ordinary bomb causes the dispersal of the radioactive material over a large area. Casualties would result from the initial explosion, the radiation, and the ensuing panic.
A very basic level of knowledge in the assembly of explosive charges is all that is needed to create a dirty bomb. Such a bomb, composed of several hundred pounds of explosives, added together with several pounds of radioactive material would have quite a direct and indirect impact…
Just a few days ago, the pipeline that supplies natural gas to Israel was blown up for the 12th time in the past year outside of the Massaeed area west of the coastal town of el-Arish. Ansar al Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack and stated that the latest attack was in retaliation for the death of one of their leaders, Muhammad Eid Musleh Hamad, also known as Muhammad Tihi, who died in his prison cell in Cairo. He was captured by Egyptian security on November 13th, and accused of masterminding a series of bombings which have battered the gas pipelines in the Sinai peninsula.
The group also attacked the Nakhl police station in central Sinai. This same station had been hit by rocket propelled grenades just a few days before.
I’ll let Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a career CIA officer make the closing statement…
For Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, the emergence of a sympathetic jihadist infrastructure in Sinai would be a strategic gain in a pivotal arena. Even a relatively small number of terrorists hiding in the remote mountains of the central Sinai would be a dangerous threat to the stability of the region. They could target the pipeline, the border, tourists at Sharm el-Shaykh and even American troops serving with the twelve-nation-strong Multinational Force Organization that is charged with monitoring the peace agreement in Sinai. If al-Qaeda can open a new front here, it will be a danger to peace and stability in the region as a whole.
The ideology of al-Qaeda has gained adherents in the Sinai as well as in Gaza. It’s already a volatile situation, and adding al-Qaeda to the mix—which would love to provoke a war between Egypt and Israel—may cause the Middle East to get a lot hotter.
As I mentioned at the beginning, things are getting interesting in the Sinai…