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A new terror map
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 08 - 2012

How could one terrorist attack pack enough power not only to shake the foundations of the status quo in Sinai but send tremors that have shaken Egypt and Gaza, plus Egypt's sensitive, if relatively stable, relationship with Israel? Samir Ghattas explains
A single terrorist act on 5 August, which claimed the lives of 16 Egyptian soldiers as they were breaking their Ramadan fast, precipitated unprecedented strategic, military and political repercussions that will continue to reverberate like the aftershocks that follow an earthquake.
Some observers attribute the fall-out from 5 August to the way the cowardly assault undermined the status and prestige of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The incident brought to mind the Israeli attack in 1954, when Gaza was under Egyptian control, against the Egyptian military unit stationed in Khan Younis. The attack galvanised president Gamal Abdel-Nasser into taking the historic decision to turn to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc to arm the Egyptian army.
That the Rafah terrorist attack was viewed as an insult to the Egyptian army may account for the way it was reported domestically but does not explain the magnitude of the aftermath. To do that we must examine the context within which the attack took place, a crucial moment in the power struggle between the newly elected President Mohamed Mursi and SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan.
Both sides sought to use the incident to strengthen their hands: indeed, some analysts have argued that Mursi dismissed Tantawi and Anan to avoid any possibility of them enhancing their reputations, both within the army and on the street, by directing successful anti-terror operations in Sinai. Should they have done so it would have made any future move against SCAF extremely difficult. The danger for Mursi now, after replacing Tantawi and Anan, is that any failure of the operation to clean up Sinai of terror groups will erode public confidence in his judgement.
The attack, more than any other recent event, revealed to the public the dangerous interconnections between Gaza and the Sinai. The military communiqué issued immediately following the soldiers' deaths said mortar bombs had been fired into Sinai from Gaza to provide cover for the assailants: almost immediately the glare of public attention fell on Hamas, which controls the tunnels that perforate the border between the Sinai and Gaza.
There is plenty of evidence that the tunnels have been used to transport not just arms but jihadists across the border in both directions.
The timing of the operation could not have been more embarrassing for the president and, behind him, the Muslim Brotherhood. It followed in the wake of Ismail Haniyeh's red carpet reception in Cairo at the head of a Hamas delegation and against a backdrop of reports that Mursi had pledged to keep the Rafah border crossing open on a permanent basis, link Gaza to Egypt's national grid and to natural gas and water networks.
The Muslim Brotherhood maintains strong ties with its offshoot Hamas: the nature of the relationship is made explicit in Article 2 of Hamas's charter. The relationship will have a direct impact on the political and military success -- or otherwise -- of Operation Eagle.
Hamas may not have been accused of direct involvement in the Sinai attack, but then neither has it been possible to exonerate Hamas completely. It cannot completely escape blame for the deterioration in security conditions in Sinai which, over the last five years, has become a depot for smuggled arms and a preserve for extreme Salafist and jihadist groups which derive their ideological inspiration from Al-Qaeda.
The problems begin with Hamas's drive to recruit Sinai Bedouins into smuggling gangs. The gangs reaped vast profits from the smuggling and stockpiling of arms and explosives. Soon jihadist groups, which had proliferated in Gaza under Hamas's de facto government, expanded their proselytising and paramilitary activities to the Sinai. The peninsula had become a powder keg, and the activities of Gaza's jihadist groups acted as a fuse.
The relationship between Hamas and these jihadist outfits was often strained, sometimes to the point of outright conflict, they continued to grow. According to some estimates there are up to 5,000 permanent members of groups such as the Popular Resistance Committees and the Nasser Salaheddin Brigades, the latter founded by Jamal Abu Samahdana.
These groups maintain links with the Hamas movement and government in Gaza. Emad Hammad, the groups' military commander, is thought to have played a leading role in expanding jihadist influence in Sinai. Hammad was assassinated by Israel on 17 August 2011, along with Abu Osama Al-Gharib, another jihadist commander. Israel claimed both were involved in last year's attack across the Sinai border which killed seven Israeli civilians in Eilat.
Hamas also has links with the Army of Islam, the group led by Mumtaz Dughmush which acted alongside Hamas to capture the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Dughmush's group also kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston in 2006. The Army of Islam subsequently confirmed its connections with jihadist groups internationally by demanding, in exchange for Johnston, the release of a woman known as Saeda, arrested by the Jordanian authorities and charged with the bombing of a hotel in downtown Amman. The woman is a member of the Zarqawi group in Iraq. The Army of Islam also demanded the release of Sheik Abu Hamza Al-Masri, who is serving a prison sentence in England. It has never pressed for the release of a single Palestinian held by Israel.
Egyptian authorities have accused the Army of Islam of responsibility for the 2009 Khan Al-Khalili bombing. And there is mounting evidence that it has strong ties with jihadist groups in the Sinai, most notably Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.
The existence of the Sinai extremist group Jaish Al-Umma (Army of the Muslim Nation) was first revealed by Israeli Channel 2 in a news report aired in August 2007. At the time many commentators questioned the report's veracity. Their scepticism was to prove ill-founded: within a year Jaish Al-Umma leader Abu Hafs Al-Maqdisi had invited Reuters to film military manoeuvres carried out by his group. In the televised report broadcast on 2 September 2008 banners sporting Al-Qaeda slogans were prominently displayed and Al-Maqdisi acknowledged that the Army of the Muslim Nation not only espoused the same ideas as Al-Qaeda but that Arab mujahideen -- he referred to them as "Al-Qaeda lions" -- had joined the group after arriving in Sinai via the Rafah tunnels.
Jund Allah (Army of God), led by Abu Abdallah Al-Suri, is yet another jihadist Salafist group operating in Sinai. On 8 July 2009 members of the group used horses to charge an Israeli position near the border. The attackers were all killed. Among the corpses were three Egyptians and several Yemenis.
Among the most dangerous of the jihadist groups with links in the Sinai is Jaljala, named after the boom that follows an explosion. Mahmoud Taleb, its leader, was a member of the Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas, before breaking away. Hamas, he said, had "deviated from the correct path" and did not rule in accordance with the Quran.
Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad's Aknaf Bayt Al-Maqdis, a regional organisation with branches in North Africa also maintains a presence in Sinai. Its leader, Hisham Al-Saidani (aka Abul-Walid El-Maqdisi) was born in Cairo in 1969. His father is Egyptian, his mother Palestinian. Al-Saidani is said to exercise extensive influence in jihadist Salafist circles in the Sinai.
Al-Saidani was arrested by Hamas in 2010. In April of the same year two of his followers, one Jordanian and the other Palestinian, abducted and killed the Italian pro-Palestinian human rights activist Vittorio Arrigoni. Their purpose was to pressure Hamas into releasing their leader. Hamas killed them.
Such is Al-Saidani's standing among jihadist Salafist groups that they dispatched a delegation to mediate with the Hamas government for his release. Hamas did, indeed, release Al-Saidani on 2 August 2012, the same day Israel issued a warning about the likelihood of a terrorist attack and just three days before the killing of the Egyptian soldiers in Rafah.
In a possibly related development Israeli forces shot Eid Okal as he was driving a motorbike on the Gaza side of Rafah the morning of 5 April. Okal is thought to have been an associate of the Saudi extremist Abu Hazifa. On 18 June 2012, with an Egyptian known as Abu Salah, Abu Hazifa crossed the Egyptian border into the Negev where they killed an Israeli building contractor of Arab origin. Israeli sources have said Okal was connected with a new jihadist group which called itself Al-Furqan. Another jihadist group in the Sinai, Ansar Al-Jihad, subsequently broadcast a video showing the perpetrators of the attack.
Immediately following the official Israeli announcement that Okal had been assassinated, a missile was fired from Gaza towards the village of Siderot in Israel, confirming the tightly knit organisational/paramilitary structures that bind extremist jihadist groups in Gaza with their counterparts in the Sinai.
It is no longer possible to ignore the reality of the proliferation of jihadist Salafist groups in Sinai. They are thought to have between 1,600 and 2,000 armed and trained members. The groups to which they belong have carried out more than 50 terrorist operations since the 25 January Revolution, targeting police stations, army checkpoints, and Israeli installations across the border.
Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad is one of the oldest and most notorious of Sinai's militant Islamist groups. It has claimed responsibility for the 2000 and 2006 Sinai bombings and 14 of its members were sentenced to death for their involvement in armed assaults against the Arish police station and a bank in the town in June and July 2011. The group, which is established enough to have an official spokesman, Ashraf Yassin, is connected with likeminded groups in Gaza as well as in North Africa and Mali. It has declared its intention to turn the Sinai into an Islamic emirate.
Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen/Aknaf Bayt Al-Maqdis (The Holy Warriors Shura Council/In the embrace of the Holy City) is a more recent grouping. On 30 July 2012 it broadcast a video claiming responsibility for the 18 June murder of the building contractor. In the video the Saudi Arabian Abu Hazifa announced: "We dedicate this operation to our brothers in Al-Qaeda, Sheikh Ayman El-Zawahri and Sheikh Osama [bin Laden], whom we are avenging."
In its inaugural declaration Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen had proclaimed "there is no longer place for secular nationalism and democracy". In its fourth communiqué, issued on 7 August 2012, the group denied any involvement in the terrorist attack in Rafah though it condemned the Egyptian government's decision to close the Rafah crossing. On 20 August it released another statement, reiterating its denial of any involvement in the Rafah operation but, in contradiction to official Egyptian statements, claiming responsibility for the missile fire against Eilat. For the first time it admitted responsibility for the bombings of the gas pipelines in the Sinai and went on to threaten to shift the battle lines in the confrontation with Egyptian forces from the Sinai to the heart of Cairo.
Al-Qaeda wal-Jihad, an offshoot of the Takfir wal-Hijra group and the Shawqiyoun of the 1970s and 1980s, is not only present in the Sinai but also in some Nile cities.
But what does all this mean, both for our understanding of the 5 August attack in Rafah, and its consequences?
On the basis of this information above it is possible to make a number of general observations:
The vicious attack in August may not have been the first in Sinai, but it revealed the extent to which jihadist Salafist groups have proliferated and how broad their ideological, organisational and paramilitary network is. This begs a number of pressing questions, not least concerning the culpability of the Mubarak regime in allowing the security situation in Sinai to deteriorate to the extent it did. Was the regime guilty of negligence, to what extent was this a result of corruption and incompetence?
Many observers, myself included, warned that Al-Qaeda inspired groups were proliferating in Gaza and would make common cause with likeminded groups in the Sinai. Why did officials refuse to heed these early warning?
The Egyptian position on the border tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai has been, and remains, unclear. One day the army leadership proclaims its resolve to keep the tunnels closed, a decision hailed by most of Sinai's tribal leaders. The next day the President's Office announces that no official decision has been taken. Hamas, meanwhile, chooses to announce that the tunnels are back in operation at the height of Operation Eagle. Such inconsistency and lack of coordination is unacceptable. The question of the tunnels must be approached logically, and from the standpoint of Egyptian security needs. At the same time a realistic solution to the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza must be found, and in such a way that Israel is not presented with a pretext to evade its responsibilities as an occupying power under the fourth Geneva Convention.
There is a long list of evidence that indicates that Hamas bears much of the responsibility for the general security breakdown in Sinai. It is familiar with, and has detailed knowledge of, the members and activities of jihadist Salafist groups in Gaza and their connections in the Sinai. It was directly responsible for the traffic of goods and persons through the tunnels in both directions. Indeed, an official Hamas committee is in charge of supervising tunnel activity, from the granting of excavation permits and operating licences to the collection of fees and taxes on items passing through the tunnels.
Hamas has dragged its feet over security cooperation with Egypt, especially when it comes to arms smuggling from Sudan and Libya and the stockpiling arms in the Sinai. It has yet to apprehend the sniper who killed an Egyptian soldier in 2008, extradite Army of Islam leader Dughmush who is wanted by the Egyptian authorities, or hand over other Egyptian wanted persons who fled to Gaza. At the same time it has allowed various Arab and non-Arab Islamist militants to enter Egypt via the tunnels. Most of them remain at large, and are active in jihadist cells in the Sinai.
If it has secured the return of four Egyptian police officers who were kidnapped in the Sinai in February 2011, it has yet to hand over Hamas leader Ayman Nofal, who was smuggled out of an Egyptian prison after 25 January, and so far it has refused to allow the Egyptian authorities to interrogate Raed Al-Attar and Mahmoud Abu Shamala, Hamas officials whom Egyptian security officers believe are directly responsible for the smuggling of arms and people into the Sinai.
Operation Eagle cannot be restricted to the pursuit and punishment of those groups that carried out the Rafah attack on 5 August. Unless the scope of the operation extends to the many other groups active in the Sinai, they will continue to pose a grave threat to Egyptian national security and territorial sovereignty.
In like manner, if the operation is to succeed it must not be encumbered by political restrictions. Egypt's national security considerations must be given priority, even over the "brothers" currently ruling in Gaza.
It is the right, perhaps even the duty, of the Egyptian people to voice their opinion on all matters pertaining to their national security. It is their right to be clearly and accurately informed about the progress of the military campaign codenamed Operation Eagle. Yet not only has there been a dearth of official military communiqués but contradictory reports have heightened confusion.
Sheikh Aref Abu Bakr of the Sawarka tribe bluntly told newly appointed Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi that the army communiqué claiming that 20 terrorists had been killed was a lie. There is, too, the mystery of the assassination of Sheikh Khalaf Al-Menahi and his son after they stated that Palestinian elements were involved in the terrorist attack in the Sinai. The murders have been surrounded by silence and there is little if any evidence the assassins are being pursued.
Such developments raise legitimate concerns about whether political calculations are being allowed to hamper the military campaign.
Operation Eagle should be subsumed within a wider strategy that aims to uproot terrorism across Egypt. Jihadist movements that identify with Al-Qaeda in Gaza with the Al-Qaeda inspired groups that have proliferated in the Sinai are also connected with the groups in the heart of Egypt that declared their existence during the 29 July 2011 Friday demonstration in Tahrir Square at which black banners were unfurled and the same slogans used in Sinai and Gaza chanted.
Arms and terrorists are smuggled into Egypt from Sudan, Libya and further afield. Recently Germany announced the expulsion of members of the extremist group the Sons of Ibrahim, only for the group to reconfigure in Egypt, reinforced by mujahideen fresh from fighting with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Beyond the immediate dangers posed by such terrorist networks, their presence could see Egypt labelled as a state that supports terrorism, a categorisation that would devastate prospects for economic development and genuine democracy.
Israel's connection with Al-Qaeda is characterised by no small degree of ambiguity and inconsistency, to the extent that a prominent Israeli scholar felt compelled to ask why Al-Qaeda has never once acted on the incessant refrain in its propaganda regarding the holy duty to attack Israel. What we can be fairly sure of is that Israel has the ability to infiltrate deeply into most Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist Salafist groups, particularly those in Gaza and the Sinai. This intelligence capacity offers Israel three advantages. It can anticipate and pre-empt terrorist operations, it can pursue and assassinate leaders of jihadist groups, and it can use the terrorist attacks carried out by these groups to attain strategic or political objectives. Reason enough for Egypt to take all possible precautions and remain constantly vigilant, whether with regard to the fallout of operations that have taken place or with regard to operations that could be carried out by Al-Qaeda-inspired groups in Gaza and in the Sinai, with or without the knowledge of Hamas.
Such terrorist attacks offer Israel the pretext to press ahead with its greater schemes, even to seek to turn parts of Sinai into a replacement Palestinian homeland, as per the plans outlined by General Giora Eland, Ariel Sharon's one time security advisor and the man who masterminded Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Although Egypt has every right to press for a review of the Camp David security protocols it should be wary of yielding to calls to use the recent terrorist attack in Rafah to pursue such a goal. The last thing Egypt needs is to be drawn into a futile confrontation with Israel and the US over the matter.
One final observation remains to be made. It is as yet too early to pass judgement on an operation of the scope and significance of Operation Eagle. It is still in progress and fraught with unpredictable possibilities.


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