Egyptian army and intelligence forces have detained some suspected militants in the Sinai region today, and will continue on the hunt for Al Qaeda cells that have infiltrated the peninsula in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, according to debkafile. While that is good news for terror-fighting worldwide, could it point to a larger problem brewing in a volatile Sinai region?
The incursion confirms CNN reports over the weekend that high level sources in the Egyptian military were preparing an operation into the rugged Sinai region to root out Al Qaeda cells.
As the Sinai connects Egypt to both Israel and the Gaza Strip, its location is of obvious strategic value for planning and conducting terrorist attacks against Israel. A major natural gas pipeline running through the Sinai was bombed for the fifth time this year, and Egyptian authorities believe an Al Qaeda-affiliated group is responsible.
The Egyptian incursion could be just the first step in a long campaign to root out the growing extremist presence infiltrating Egypt and its environs, with major consequences for the security of Israel and its neighbors hanging in the balance.
Soon after the Egyptian forces entered the Sinai on their anti-terrorism mission MOnday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a public warning that Egypt risks losing control of the growing terrorist presence in the peninsula. Ha'aretz quoted the Israel PM saying Egypt's current difficulties projecting sovereignty and the rule of law have created an environment in which:
"International terror organizations are stirring in Sinai and their presence is increasing due to Sinai's connection to Gaza."
While the extent and role of a possible Al Qaeda presence in the Sinai remains uncertain, press reports point to a number of troubling connections over the years. For example, there have been major terrorist operations conducted there in the past, including bombing attacks on the northern Sinai resort of Sharm El Sheikh that killed 90 people in 2005.
In addition, Army of Islam, an Al Qaeda-associated terrorist group, is known to operate in the Sinai. The group is a likely suspect in the natural gas pipeline attacks this past year, and it previously planned to carry out a series of kidnapping operations against Israelis in the Sinai resort areas. In response, the Israelis killed the leader of the Army of Islam in Gaza with an aerial strike last November.
Given the nearby Israeli military presence and current Egyptian willingness to engage terrorists, it would seem only a worst-case scenario that a post-Mubarak Sinai peninsula could one day turn into a safe haven for Al Qaeda and assorted militants -- a sort of "Waziristan of the Mediterranean," or "Yemen on the Suez." The Sinai shares a border with Israel as well as the Gaza Strip, which means the Israel Defense Forces will keep a close eye on events there and likely take action if necessary to prevent an entrenched AQ presence.
But as we have seen in other parts of the world -- Northwest Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and small areas of the Philippines and Thailand -- jihadist terror groups do not need large numbers or the support of a nation state to survive and plot successful terrorist attacks.
The Sinai is vast and rugged. Only a couple thousand Egyptian troops have been assigned to keep order and protect the natural gas pipeline in the aftermath of the revolution that deposed Mubarak. There are reports that terrorists have already retreated to small camps in the mountains of the mid-Sinai region, which can reach heights of over 8,000 feet.
Rooting out these terrorists would be a very difficult mission for Egyptian forces without air power. On top of that, there is a population of a few hundred thousand bedouins roaming the peninsula, who could give both aid and concealment to militant groups. According to some reports, the bedouins are already active participants in the weapons transfers across the Sinai intended to arm Gaza to the teeth.
Bin Laden's successor and the current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has certainly taken note of the opening for Al Qaeda created by the Arab Spring in Egypt and its environs. In a video released on the internet yesterday, Zawahiri made the following appeal to Jihadists around the globe, as posted on Fox News:
"In Tunisia and Egypt, opportunities for preaching have been opened and only God knows until when these opportunities will last," he said. "Therefore, the Muslims and the mujahedeen should benefit and take advantage of them to reveal the truth."
Whether Egypt continues its efforts to root our terrorists in the Sinai or not, the U.S. and Israel will have to keep a close eye on the peninsula, lest it join an infamous list of previously unremarkable spots that now harbor jihadists with global ambitions. Stability on the Sinai peninsula just may be the canary in a coal mine for Egypt's security, democratic aspirations, and future relations with the state of Israel.