For quite a few hours it was assumed last Wednesday that terrorists had launched the attack from Sinai on IDF troops patrolling, inside Israel, along the border with Egypt. It wasn’t far-fetched conjecture considering that the extremist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis rushed to claim responsibility. Wounding an Israeli officer and her adjutant was a prestige-booster.
Later, however, it transpired that this was a drug smuggling caper gone wrong. Nonetheless, there is no cause for any sigh of relief here.
The undeniable fact of Sinai’s anarchic reality is that the lines between crime and terrorism are so blurred that they often become altogether indistinguishable. Sinai’s rampaging outlaws dabble in everything indiscriminately. All their diverse illegal pursuits are intrinsically intertwined and mutually beneficial.
Last week’s incident is a telling case in point. The drug-runners weren’t penny-ante operators. They rode in combat vehicles and were armed with anti-tank rockets. They had no hesitation to take the offensive and open fire once they understood that the Israelis had detected them.
Their battle-grade weaponry and equipment – along with the trigger-happy response by these drug-traffickers and their sophisticated ambush tactics – prop up the perception that they aren’t exclusively small-time Beduin felons in league with equally small-time Beduin accomplices in Israel’s Negev.
The symbiotic links between narcotics contrabandists and jihadist warriors isn’t new or surprising. We have known it for many years in Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah has maintained a close partnership with local drug lords.
The vast no-man’s-land that the Sinai constitutes irresistibly beckons jihadist militias including Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates, to say nothing of Hamas across the line in Gaza. Egypt’s internal strife had opened new vistas for the forces of obdurate Islam and enhanced preexisting ones. Foreign firebrands, whose strings are pulled from Gazan control centers, are flocking in.
Prominent among them are the zealots of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (the original Arabic appellation for Jerusalem, ironically a mispronunciation of the Hebrew name for the Temple, Beit Hamikdash). This outfit was once clearly tied to al Qaida but is now considered an Islamic State subsidiary. Also operating in Sinai on a very large scale is the Salafiya Jihadiya (Salafist Jihad). Numerous Beduin marauders run their own brigand operations both in conjunction with the terrorists or alongside.
Thus, in collusion with armed lawless Beduin bands, terrorists engage in assorted jihadist extravaganzas – from attacking Egyptian officers and rocketing Israel to blowing up gas pipelines and taking tourists hostage. All manner of depredation proliferate in the Sinai’s opportune setting.
The foremost aim of the various Islamist insurgents is the destabilization of Egypt, the Arab world’s largest state. Some groups see disarray as their goal while others seek the restoration of Muslim Brotherhood hegemony.
The disorderly domains of Sinai are only nominally Egyptian and Cairo’s rule barely extends to them. Indeed it was always nearly extraterritorial, a chaotic expanse whose Beduin tribes feel exempt from the jurisdiction of any central government. Their insubordination went chronically unchecked, under all Egyptian regimes. Any attempt to control them was met by violent reactions.
Such confrontation might likely not be containable and might spread to other parts of Egypt. It is for this reason that Cairo has significantly stepped up security at crossing points between the Sinai Peninsula and mainland Egypt. This isn’t done for the love of Israel.
Cairo knows full well that Hamas actively aids and abets pro-Brotherhood subversion and sabotage in Sinai and throughout Egypt and has consistently been an obliging source of manpower, munitions and infrastructure for Sinai’s terrorists.
The number-one existential danger Israel faces doubtless comes from Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The Islamic State predations in both Syria and Iraq – and the threats they pose beyond – are probably second on the danger list for the immediate future. Yet, although largely ignored at the moment, the power-vacuum in the Sinai should rank right up there as well.
Cairo’s ongoing campaign against the Sinai-based terror-mongers is nothing to sneeze at. In this context, Cairo’s current powers-that-be perforce oppose Hamas, which is an active and uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.
The implications for Israel are profound.