Some 15 different Salafi groups affiliated with the global jihad movement and Al-Qaida are operating in Sinai, according to senior officials in the Shin Bet security service. Officials say four of these groups are especially active in attempts to attack Israel Defense Forces soldiers along the border and fire rockets into Israel. While the Shin Bet estimates the number of operatives at several hundred people, Military Intelligence puts it at a few thousand.
- Report: U.S. quietly freezes military aid to Egypt
- The key to restoring Sinai security: Egypt must address plight of local population
- Israeli Arab indicted for fighting for rebels in Syria
- Amid the tumult, Israel is acting logically for a change
Some of these operatives are foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gaza Strip, but most are Sinai Bedouin who have undergone a process of radicalization. A senior Israeli intelligence official said the foreigners bring motivation and inspiration, but the basic infrastructure is comprised of Sinai Bedouin.
The four groups most active against Israel are Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has fired rockets at Eilat several times, most recently last week; Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, which killed an Israeli civilian working on the border fence in June 2012; Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which perpetrated the August 2012 attack in which 16 Egyptian policemen were killed, ; and Jaish al-Islam, a group started by the Dughmush clan from Gaza that was involved in kidnapping soldier Gilad Shalit, and has since branched out into Sinai, where it has tried unsuccessfully to kidnap Israeli tourists.
The flow of global jihad operatives from Sinai to Gaza and back has forced Israeli intelligence agencies to reorganize. A written agreement between them gives the Shin Bet responsibility for thwarting attacks along the Egyptian border. Military Intelligence is in charge of electronic intelligence gathering, satellite photography and the balloon-mounted cameras tethered along the border that float into Sinai.
The Shin Bet has created a new unit that deals solely with foiling attacks from Sinai. This unit’s resources and manpower are currently on a par with those devoted to thwarting attacks north of Ramallah in the West Bank – and some sources say they are even greater.
The proliferation of Salafi groups, affiliated with the global jihad movement, in Sinai is a development of the last three to five years. The Sinai Bedouin were for years relatively secular, but they have recently undergone a process of accelerated Islamization. Israeli intelligence sources cite several reasons for this, including increased exposure to the Internet in general and Islamist websites in particular, the arrival of foreign clerics, and their growing alienation from the central government in Cairo.
But another significant factor in this development was Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza, which brought Gaza and Sinai much closer together. This process increased further after Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, and peaked after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt in 2011.
Contrary to what the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence had expected, after the disengagement Gaza began exporting terror to Sinai rather than the other way around. “We thought Sinai was the source of all evil for Gaza, but it turned out that things were exactly the opposite,” a senior intelligence official said. “The Egyptians understood the situation much faster than we did.”
Experienced Palestinian terrorists from Gaza have gone to Sinai and hooked up with Bedouin groups there, bringing a great deal of knowhow with them, he explained.
Moreover, over the last two years, Gaza has become a base for Salafis from all over the Arab world seeking military training. The senior official said that most of the training camps are run by Mumtaz Dughmush, the head of Jaish al-Islam. The group gets money from individuals and organizations abroad that support global jihad, and its courses last several weeks. Its trainees then go on to Sinai, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The official said Hamas is aware of Dughmush’s activities, but has agreed to let the Gaza training camps operate in exchange for Dughmush’s promise that neither the operatives who train there nor Jaish al-Islam itself will operate from the Gaza Strip.
“We thought experienced global jihad operatives from Afghanistan and Iraq would come to Sinai, and from there to Gaza, but in practice, the operatives from Gaza are the ones who taught the operatives in Sinai everything they know,” the official said. “The Salafi operatives from Gaza are all breakaways from Hamas and Islamic Jihad who know the IDF well and have accumulated much more combat experience than the operatives from Sinai ... The Gaza operatives are an operational asset, because they know how to plan and supervise attacks.”
Defense sources said Israel’s coordination with the Egyptian security services is good, but there’s still a feeling that the Egyptians are acting hesitantly against the Sinai Salafis and are afraid to confront them directly. The senior official said the Egyptians are focusing mainly on the terrorist infrastructure – destroying tunnels to Gaza, uncovering arms caches in Sinai and thwarting arms smuggling around the Suez Canal – rather than taking action against the terrorists themselves.
“Most of the people involved in the attack that slaughtered 16 Egyptian policemen are still walking around free in Sinai, and that broadcasts weakness,” the senior official said. “The Egyptians understand that the situation in Sinai and Gaza is a threat to their national security. Their activity in Sinai is improving, but they still haven’t gone the last mile.”