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Dangers lurking
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 12 - 2014

Concrete measures taken on the ground have reduced anxiety with regard to the threat posed by militia groups in the border area with Gaza. The most salient of these measures entailed the evacuation of a border strip so as to create a 14-kilometre long and one-kilometre deep buffer zone. Tunnels beneath the Sinai-Gaza border have been destroyed, closing a major supply line for weapons and operatives in both directions. The border with the coastal strip is now far less porous.
In tandem with these measures, military and security forces continue to pursue extremist militia elements and develop and refine their combat operations. One result is a noticeable drop in counter-operations and a shift from direct to indirect confrontations — planting explosive devices along roads, sniper or drive-by attacks against security personnel in the vicinity of police departments and, in the most extreme cases, targeting fixed security barricades from a distance using relatively sophisticated weapons.
Will the measures now in place end the terrorist threat in Sinai?
The answer, sadly, is no. Military and security experts say that despite the advances made in the confrontation and pursuit of extremists following the terrorist attack at Karam Al-Qawadis there is still much to do in terms of eliminating the roots and drying up the resources of terrorism so that reconstruction can begin and relative stability be restored to the border area.
Progress already made by military and security operations will be bolstered by new measures after the completion of the buffer zone. They will include the deployment of technological systems to secure coastal areas using hardware supplied by Italy. Contracts were finalised during President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's recent visit to Rome. Advanced systems, including radar surveillance and remote explosive detection equipment, will also be used to improve security in Sinai.
In the interim the danger of guerrilla warfare on the part of the jihadist militias remains. Local Sinai sources say leaders from Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, or the Sinai State of ISIS as they now call themselves, fled into the mountains in central Sinai following the recent intensification of security measures. This will necessitate new means of confrontation, in particular and the deployment of Apache helicopters, and is likely to prove both a crucial and dangerous phase in the battle to eliminate Sinai's most prolific organisation. Egyptian officials have called on Washington to stop obstructing — on the pretext of objecting to the arrangements for the transfer of 800 families away from the border zone — the delivery to Egypt of ten long delayed Apaches. In the opinion of military expert General Alaa Ezzeddin the US may be misreading the domestic situation in Egypt, for if it is not the only conclusion to be drawn is that Washington is unwilling to cooperate in Egypt's fight against terrorism.
Compounding the problem is the possibility that potentially serious threats are coalescing. According to Gazi Al-Tarabin, a local Sinai activist, “sleeping cells” are being formed as security forces step up operations and tighten their grip. These cells, says Al-Tarabin, could easily find refuge among some Sinai tribes and prepare for operations to be undertaken at a later phase.
A more immediate source of anxiety is Gaza, and for several reasons. In the last decade clandestine organisations have proliferated along the border. Initially they were Palestinian organisations that could command logistical support from some local Bedouins. Subsequently Sinai-based organisations with Palestinian support emerged, followed by groups with an international terrorist character of which the Sinai State, a branch of ISIS, is the most recent. What links these groups is that Gaza long served as their primary source of arms and funding.
As Hamas leaders such as Mahmoud Al-Zahhar have said repeatedly, during the period of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt the Gaza-Sinai tunnels were the main route for weapons from outside to enter the Strip. What no Hamas official has admitted is that many of the arms that came into the Sinai were not destined for Hamas and instead were stockpiled in Sinai. The Egyptian army has unearthed many arsenals in Rafah and Al-Sheikh Zuweid. On the other side of the border are similar weapon stores as well as rank and file members of Hamas.
Gaza continues to represent a source of threat that must be addressed, all the more so given Hamas's unwillingness to cooperate with Egypt on security. It offers organisations operating in Sinai the opportunity to retrench and enhance their capacities. Eliminating threats on the Egyptian side of the border is only part of the story: it may reduce the number of terrorist incidents but it will not put an end to the phenomenon.


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