For quite a few hours last Wednesday it was assumed that terrorists launched the attack from Sinai on IDF troops patrolling, inside Israel, along the border with Egypt. It was not a far-fetched conjecture, considering that the extremist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis rushed to claim responsibility.
Wounding an Israeli officer and her adjutant would have been a prestige-booster for them.
Later, however, it was understood that this had been a drug-smuggling caper gone wrong. Still, there is no cause for sighs of relief here.
The undeniable reality of anarchy in Sinai is that the boundary between crime and terrorism is so blurry that the distinction effectively disappears. Rampaging outlaws in the peninsula dabble indiscriminately in everything they pursue. Diverse illegal activities are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.
Last week’s incident constitutes a telling case in point. The drug-runners are no penny-ante operators. They rode in combat vehicles, armed with anti-tank rockets. They do not hesitate to go on the offensive, and they opened fire once they realized that the Israelis had detected them.
The battle-grade weaponry and equipment – along with their trigger-happy response and sophisticated ambush tactics – prove that these are not just small-time Beduin felons in league with other small-time Beduin accomplices in Israel’s Negev.
The symbiotic link between narcotics trafficers and jihadist warriors is neither new nor surprising. We have known about it for years in Lebanon where the Shi’ite Hezbollah has maintained a close partnership with local drug lords.
The vast no-man’s-land in Sinai irresistibly attracts jihadist militias, including Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates, to say nothing of Hamas partisans in the Gaza Strip. Egypt’s internal strife had opened new opportunities for the forces of obdurate Islam and enhanced existing 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, is 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. Salafiya Jihadiya (“Salafist Jihad”) operates on a large scale in Sinai. Beduin marauders run their own outlaw operations in collaboration with the terrorists or alongside them.
Thus, terrorists engage in assorted jihadist extravaganzas in collusion with lawless Beduin bands, attacking Egyptian officers, rocketing Israel, blowing up gas pipelines and taking tourists hostage. All manner of depredation proliferates in Sinai’s encouraging setting.
The foremost aim of the various Islamist insurgents is to destabilize Egypt, the Arab world’s most-populous state.
Some groups set disarray as their goal while others seek to restore Muslim Brotherhood hegemony.
The disorderly domains of Sinai are only nominally Egyptian; Cairo’s rule barely extends to them. Indeed, it was always virtually extraterritorial, a chaotic expanse whose Beduin tribes felt exempt from the jurisdiction of any government.
Their chronic insubordination went unchecked under all Egyptian regimes. Every attempt to control them was met by violence.
Such confrontation has the potential to spread to other parts of Egypt. For this reason Cairo has stepped up security at crossing points between the peninsula and mainland Egypt. This is not done for the love of Israel.
Cairo knows full well that Hamas abets pro-Brotherhood subversion throughout Egypt and that it has been a source of manpower, munitions and infrastructure for Sinai’s terrorists.
The biggest existential danger to Israel doubtless comes from Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The Islamic State depravity in Syria and Iraq – and the threats they pose beyond – are probably second on the danger list for the immediate future. Yet, although the power-vacuum in the Sinai has been largely ignored until now, it should rank right up there, too.
Cairo’s campaign against the Sinai-based terrorism-mongers is nothing to sneeze at. Cairo’s powers-that-be also oppose Hamas, which is an active and uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.