Sinai has become, in essence, a no-man’s land, a failed state that serves as fertile ground for ultra-extremist groups – and the threat these pose is only now starting to crystallize.
Sunday’s confrontation on the Israeli-Egyptian border ended very successfully from Israel’s point of view. A concrete warning from the Shin Bet security service allowed the Israel Defense Forces to properly ready itself along the triangulated border near Rafah. Every terrorist that tried to infiltrate into Israeli territory was killed, while the Israeli side suffered no casualties.
But if one takes a broader view, the incident testifies to the development of some very serious problems – for Egypt, in the near term, and for Israel, in the slightly longer term.
The interesting question regarding the early warning was what exactly went on between Israel and Egypt during the preparations. Israel refuses to address the question directly, but it seems as if there was also advance knowledge of the global jihad activists’ plans on the other side of the border. While Israel was deploying, the Egyptian policemen were at prayer, marking the end of the Ramadan fast. This didn’t seem to bother the terrorists, presumably members of an extremist Islamic group, from entering the Egyptian camp and slaughtering its residents. Egypt’s poor performance in the Sinai over time led to Sunday’s resounding collapse.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi must now maneuver through some complicated, unfamiliar territory. On the one hand, he has the army generals, his allies by necessity. On the other hand, he faces the Salafist terrorists, who are not cutting him any slack just because he’s a member of another Islamic movement.
Cairo will also try to determine if there was any involvement by Gazans in the attack, which also aimed to kill Israelis. Given its current relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, it’s doubtful that Hamas would risk an action that required the mass killing of Egyptian policemen. But both Hamas and smaller factions, from the Popular Resistance Committees and other groups identified with the global jihad, have already in the past 18 months been involved in attacks from Sinai.
For Israel, meanwhile, this was another attack with no return address. Unless there is some proof that Gazans were behind the plot, there’s no place from which Israel can exact a price. “Global jihad” doesn’t seem to have identifiable bases, and Israel in any case would be reluctant to conduct an operation in Sinai, given its current rocky relationship with Egypt.
But looking toward the future we face a much more serious problem. The terrorists on Sunday demonstrated sophistication and daring. On the surface it seems like an operation that had been planned for a long time, and in its complexity it resembled attacks by global jihad terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But not only is there no clear source for this attack (and that the Shin Bet was able to obtain intelligence on such an amorphous terror group is very impressive), there is no one with whom Israel can communicate, even indirectly. The Sinai terror groups are not the Hamas leadership in Gaza, to whom one can signal by using force, or with whom one can negotiate indirectly with the help of the Egyptians or the Germans. Egypt’s span of control no longer extends into Sinai.
Sinai has become, in essence, a no-man’s land, a failed state that serves as fertile ground for ultra-extremist groups – and the threat these pose is only now starting to crystallize. This phenomenon can be expected to repeat itself in a few months along the Syrian border with the Golan Heights. All the ingredients are already there: A central government that doesn’t function, a violent civil war, and a steady flow of extremists into the country from throughout the region, all of whom want to participate in the new jihad.
How long will it take for these Al-Qaida satellite groups, which are currently fighting the Alawite regime, to look westward from Syria’s Hauran plateau and discover that some tempting Israeli targets are within reach?