In the year since Hosni Mubarak was toppled, most of our attention has rightly been focused on Cairo and the Nile heartland of Egypt. The future of the Arab world’s most populous country is being determined in the struggle between the army and the revolutionaries, as well as in elections for parliament and the presidency.
But there have also been important developments in Egypt’s eastern frontier, the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel. The Sinai has long been at odds with Cairo. The Bedouin population that lives in the arid and forbidding desert has long felt neglected by the government in Cairo and ignored by the Egyptian mainstream. Smuggling and crime are rampant among the tribes. Several acts of terror against Western and Israeli tourists along the Gulf of Aqaba in the last decade were blamed on the Bedouin, although the perpetrators of the violence were never really identified by the Mubarak regime.
The Wild East
During the revolution last February, police stations in the Sinai were abandoned or attacked and looted by disaffected Bedouins. A shadowy new organization emerged that went by several different titles, including al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula and Ansar al-Jihad. It took credit for attacks on the Egypt-Israel natural-gas pipeline that crosses the Sinai.
At the end of July, dozens of armed men attacked the police station in El Arish, the capital of the peninsula. In the wake of this attack, pamphlets were circulated announcing a “Statement from al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.” The statement called for creating an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, implementing sharia law, breaking the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, halting discrimination against the Sinai’s Bedouin tribes and demanding Egyptian military intervention on behalf of the Hamas regime in Gaza. The mix of global jihadist demands with local Bedouin grievances suggested the long-repressed Bedouin population of the Sinai had been radicalized by al-Qaeda activists or at least sympathizers. A video surfaced soon after repeating the demands.
In response to the violence and chaos, the Egyptian military sent a couple thousand more troops and police into the Sinai to restore order, at least in El Arish. Under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, Egyptian military forces in the peninsula are limited in numbers and equipment, so Cairo had to get Israeli approval for the troop deployment.
None of al-Qaeda’s official media outlets has recognized the jihadists in the Sinai as a formal branch of al-Qaeda. And yet Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has replaced Osama bin Laden as emir of al-Qaeda, has publicly congratulated those jihadists who blew up the pipeline and has called for more attacks on Israeli targets in his audio commentaries on the Egyptian Revolution. Many Zawahiri supporters are among those released in the jailbreaks in Egypt last year, and he has long tried to rebuild the infrastructure of the terror underground he led in Egypt in the 1990s. Also freed in the jailbreaks were terrorists involved in the attacks on tourist hotels in the Sinai in 2005 and 2006, which killed over a hundred people.
Now the group in the Sinai using the name Ansar al-Jihad has formally pledged its loyalty to Zawahiri and recognized him as the legitimate successor to bin Laden. It released a message in late January to Zawahiri supporting him as the leader of their jihad. This month, the group attacked the Egyptian-Israeli natural-gas pipeline for the twelfth time since the revolution.
For Israel, the chaos in the Sinai means the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and intelligence community must reorient scarce resources to the South. For the last few decades, the Sinai was quiet and the border peaceful. That changed last year with a major Palestinian terror attack on the border and the mob sacking of Israel’s embassy in Cairo. The IDF is already building up its capabilities in the Negev adjacent to the Sinai and must strengthen its intelligence resources devoted to Egypt as a whole and the Sinai in particular.
The Sinai is the land bridge between Africa and Asia; it is also the gateway to Gaza and Israel from Egypt. Armies have crossed it for centuries. It was fought over by Egypt and Israel from 1948 to 1979. For Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, the emergence of a sympathetic jihadist infrastructure in Sinai would be a strategic gain in a pivotal arena. Even a relatively small number of terrorists hiding in the remote mountains of the central Sinai would be a dangerous threat to the stability of the region. They could target the pipeline, the border, tourists at Sharm el-Shaykh and even American troops serving with the twelve-nation-strong Multinational Force Organization that is charged with monitoring the peace agreement in Sinai. If al-Qaeda can open a new front here, it will be a danger to peace and stability in the region as a whole.
A Dangerous Cocktail
Al-Qaeda is not about to take over the Sinai, and the al-Qaeda Shura Council may never give its formal sanction to the network operating in the peninsula. Despite the overheated commentary of some right-wing Israeli pundits, an al-Qaeda takeover is beyond the resources of the group.
But it can be more than a nuisance. It is clear that the radical ideology of al-Qaeda has gained adherents in the Sinai as well as in Gaza. It’s already a volatile situation, and adding al-Qaeda to the mix—which would love to provoke a war between Egypt and Israel—may cause the Middle East to get a lot hotter.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).