Israel Faces Uphill Battle With Al-Qaida Groups in Sinai, Says ex-IDF Commander

Despite good relations with the Egyptian military and closer ties since the ouster of Morsi, Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan says terrorist networks in Sinai are gradually acquiring more independence.

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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

While the international community is busy trying to impose an arrangement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, the new government of generals in Egypt continues to pursue its aggressive campaign against the remnants of the previous Muslim Brotherhood regime.

In Cairo, Alexandria and in provincial towns, demonstrations have been suppressed, thousands of the movement’s members jailed and tight restrictions placed on the activity of religious preachers.

In Sinai, a full-fledged military operation is underway. Hundreds of Islamist activists have been arrested in the peninsula, and estimates say hundreds of others - described by the authorities as armed terrorists - have been killed in army assaults against strongholds of Islamic extremists.

The Egyptian armed forces are making use primarily of helicopter attacks and remote shooting at the mountainous region in which the extremists are hiding. House-to-house searches and arrests are rare. The brunt of the Egyptian offensive is directed against Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a large Al-Qaida-affiliated organization in Sinai. However, the Egyptian forces are also operating against other, smaller groups, such as Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis. Concurrently, Cairo is acting with an iron hand against the smuggling tunnels that connect Sinai and Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

The new regime has accused the Islamist organizations in Sinai of involvement in last week’s failed assassination attempt against Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. In a press conference this week, the Egyptians displayed mortar shells that were seized in Sinai and, according to the inscription on them, were originally manufactured in Gaza.

Not a day goes by without Cairo hurling accusations at the organizations in Sinai and their brethren on the other side of the fence at Rafah: the Palestinian organizations in Gaza. The groups in Sinai have gone on the defensive in the face of the military campaign, though occasionally taking the Egyptians by surprise with terrorist attacks.

It is not clear at present how much longer the Egyptians will maintain such a broad effort in Sinai. Israel is watching developments from the side and, in line with its regional policy in the face of the upheavals in the Arab world, is trying not to intervene. The security relations between the two countries, which grew stronger during the Morsi period, have seen an additional improvement since the rise of the generals. This is due also to a confluence of interests in regard to the other element in the southern configuration: the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is now under heavy pressure, stemming from Egypt’s destruction of the tunnels and the numerous restrictions imposed on the use of the Rafah terminal.

A week ago, Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan completed a two-year stint as commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ territorial division that is responsible for the border with Egypt and the southern part of the border with Jordan. Speaking to Haaretz, Padan is careful not to offer an explicit opinion about the events in Sinai, preferring to focus on his direct area of responsibility.

“Good tactical coordination exists between us and the Egyptian security forces,” says Padan, who met frequently with his counterparts from across the border in the past two years. “There is an ongoing dialogue, which is now intensifying but which also existed in the period of President Morsi, without any connection to the internal processes that occurred in Egypt. You have to remember that the Egyptian army was built up in the period of the Mubarak regime. There are religious and less religious officers, but they are not from the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He has no interest in offering his personal analysis of the internal power relations in Cairo. “It sounds like a discussion in a weekend magazine in Israel. On a day-to-day basis, the division is occupied with tactical and operational challenges. The upheavals in Cairo had an effect, but I was busy mainly with what I could influence on the ground and with its implications for our operational approach along the border.”

Padan, 46, grew up in Kibbutz Ein Carmel and spent much of his service as a soldier and officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit. He was subsequently a battalion commander in the Nahal Brigade, commander of the undercover Duvdevan unit at the height of the second intifada, of the Bethlehem Territorial Brigade and of the IDF Officers School.

Even before he took over the division, the Egyptian border provided a bloody wake-up call. In August 2011, while he was learning the ropes from his predecessor, Brig. Gen. Tamir Yedai, a devastating terrorist attack took place along the border. Terrorists who infiltrated from Egypt killed six civilians and two security men at Ein Netafim, north of Eilat.

The first terrorist attacks in Sinai were perpetrated in the middle of the last decade, but Padan says the Tahrir Square revolution “definitely let the genie out of the bottle in Sinai. In the spring of 2011, Sinai-based Islamist terror infrastructures made contact with global jihad organizations in the Gaza Strip and with the Popular Resistance Committees in Rafah, and together started to plan attacks.

We still do not know the identity of most of the terrorists who took part in the Ein Netafim attack. We think that 18 people were involved and that at least some of them were Egyptians.”

The perpetrating organization was later identified as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza provided part of the funding for the action and also helped move the explosive belts used by some of the terrorists from Gaza to Sinai. “But Ansar’s role was far larger than we first thought,” Padan notes. “The terrorists were well equipped: antitank and antiaircraft missiles, sniper rifles, explosives. It was a planned, ambitious attack, whose scale recalled the attacks by Hezbollah in the period when the IDF was in Southern Lebanon.”

In addition to Gaza, there is growing external involvement by Al-Qaida in Sinai. Extremist Salafist groups in Gaza and Sinai received training, an ideological umbrella and money from Osama bin Laden’s people. In the first attacks in Sinai prior to Ein Netafim, Al-Qaida’s world leadership apparently didn’t like its name being used in the claiming of responsibility. Its approach changed when the groups in Sinai demonstrated real ability to cause damage to Israel and Egypt.

Proof of this new approach was provided two months ago, when American intelligence intercepted a conference call held by Al-Qaida leaders from around the world. This led the United States to issue a regional warning about a possible attack on one of its embassies. The leader of an Islamist faction in Sinai was one of those who had been on the line.

“The factions in Sinai are already part of the idea and part of the club,” says Padan. “Israel is now more on the Al-Qaida agenda than it was five years ago. We will see this in practice in the coming years, in the form of terrorist attacks from Sinai, Syria and Lebanon.”

The terrorist networks in Sinai are gradually acquiring more independence and freeing themselves from the shadow of Gaza. They are manufacturing their own weapons and deciding when to perpetrate attacks, based on their own considerations. There are a great many small factions. Israeli intelligence estimates that there are a few thousand armed terrorists in Sinai, divided among no fewer than 200 factions.

“We used to think that the Islamist organizations would not become involved in smuggling goods across the border, but it turns out we were wrong,” Padan says. “The same activist can smuggle drugs today, smuggle fuel tomorrow and the next day take part in a terrorist attack. A year ago, some of the security people in Israel were inclined to speak about a transition from the old tribal structure of the Bedouin in Sinai to trans-tribal ideological groupings. That was a somewhat unwarranted conclusion. The old sheikhs have been weakened, it’s true, but they still wield influence, and the tribal structure is surviving.”

When Padan took over the division, the fence along the Egyptian border was already under construction following a government decision in 2010. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially wanted the fence in an effort to stem the flow of migrants from Africa, but the Ein Netafim incident supplied a different and urgent security-based context for accelerating the project.

A fence almost 240 kilometers long was built in record time - less than two years - at a cost of NIS 1.5 billion. There are still 700 meters to go, in the area of the cliffs outside Eilat, a section that will be completed by the end of the year. The migrants were indeed blocked ? their numbers dropped from 10,000 a year to just a few dozen to date in 2013. Padan tips his hat to Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, who led the fence project and is now also engaged in improving the border fence on the Golan Heights. “The man is a bulldozer,” says Padan. “He deserves to get the Israel Defense Prize.”

The attack at Ein Netafim was a watershed in Israel’s attitude toward the Egyptian border. “Our pattern of operation changed,” Padan says. “Once, you would see a man with a bag approaching the border and you deployed for a smuggling attempt. Now you deploy for a terrorist attack, on top of which there are cases in which the smugglers shoot at the patrols in order to divert their attention and allow the actual smuggling operation to proceed somewhere else nearby.”

After that August 2011 attack, the Israeli intelligence effort in the border region was broadened. A large number of observational means were added, and the Shin Bet security service created a new division that specializes in this sector. The IDF created two territorial brigade command posts and is now using career officers instead of reservists to man divisional headquarters. A new elite unit has been established - the Rimon reconnaissance unit, part of the Givati Brigade - which specializes in foiling cross-border incursions.

The quality of the forces stationed along the border has also been significantly upgraded, with regular units supplanting the reservist battalions. At present, Armored Corps battalions and the Caracal Battalion are stationed along the Egyptian border. Like commanding officers before him, Padan is leaving the far south as an advocate of Caracal, most of whose officers and soldiers are women. “When I got here, I thought the battalion was a social event that allowed women to be combat soldiers, too. I changed my mind. Caracal operates at a very high standard that is not below the level of any other infantry battalion.”

There were 11 terrorist attacks in the division’s sector in the past two years, including infiltrations, sniper fire, the planting of bombs and the firing of rockets at Eilat and at air force bases in the Negev. Several more attacks occurred in the northern section of the border, where the Gaza Division is in charge.

In short, the Egyptian border is no longer the drowsy peace line it was during the preceding 30 years. The new fence will not prevent firing over it and will not completely put a stop to infiltrations. Padan, with his background in special units, knows there is no fence that a trained force cannot negotiate. “They get by this fence, too, but only infrequently,” he says. “The thing is that the fence greatly delays the infiltration, and the new deployment allows us to get to the site quickly and usually apprehend the infiltrators.”

There has been a vast change in the past few years, he concludes. “We moved from a situation of an open frontier area, without a fence, with forces that were quite lost in the expanse, to a completely different deployment: a sector that is closed in by a fence, saturated with [intelligence] collection means and employing better-trained forces.”

He has little to say about the other sector that was under his responsibility. Relative quiet prevails along the Jordanian border, which is still without a significant fence, as King Abdullah is, for the time being, managing to keep his country stable despite the upheavals all around. Padan agrees to say only that security coordination with the Jordanians, almost all of which is conducted under a minimal media profile, is excellent.

“We saw buds of events there in the past year, after the completion of the fence with Egypt - mainly a rise in the number of attempts to smuggle drugs from Jordan. But the Jordanians are stationing quality forces on the border, and mutual trust at a high level exists between us and them, in which we stick to honest reports, without manipulation.” As of September 2013, the Jordanian border remains stable.

A child walks in front of the wreckage of a burnt-out car, following a Sept. 10 attack by the Egyptian army near the town of Sheikh Zuweid. Credit: AFP

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