Untamed Sinai a haven for terrorists

Egyptians gathering near a car bomb that was detonated before reaching its intended target. killing three passengers on July 24, 2013 in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The region is already attracting extremists from as far afield as Afghanistan.

Egypt's military has vowed to continue "wiping out" Islamic militants who have taken refuge in the country's Sinai desert.

In a statement posted on the government's website on Tuesday, Colonel Ahmed Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian armed forces' official spokesman, said the extensive security crackdown has already "left 25 terrorists dead and injured".

Still, Western intelligence agencies fear that Egypt is losing the battle to prevent Sinai from becoming the world's newest launch pad for international terrorism: The region is already attracting extremists from as far afield as Afghanistan.

And, as a mysterious drone attack from neighbouring Israel last week made clear, if Egypt does not restore order to its desert soon, foreign governments will step in and do it. Israel yesterday shot down a rocket fired from the area by Islamist militants aimed at its Eilat city.

A vast but sparsely populated area sandwiched between the Suez Canal and Israel, Sinai has always been Egypt's most neglected region. That is partly because it was often under foreign occupation - it was briefly seized by Israel in 1956 and then ruled by the Israelis continuously between 1967 and 1982.

But it is also because Sinai is genuinely difficult to control. Aside from a few swanky holiday resorts in the southern Red Sea coast, the rest of its inhabitants are concentrated in some dusty villages hundreds of kilometres further north, while the sand dunes in between remain the preserve of nomadic Bedouin tribes.

There isn't much of an economy. Apart from menial jobs in a handful of tourist attractions - including St Catherine's, the oldest monastery in the Christian world - the only two other gainful occupations are either working for the government or engaging in smuggling.

The local Bedouins derive most of their income from smuggling African refugees into Israel, or from the illicit trade in weapons and food into the Gaza Strip, the adjacent Palestinian territory blockaded by Israel.

In short, Sinai is the ideal terrorist haven: huge, barren spaces, inaccessible terrain and a culture of lawlessness.

Matters took a turn for the worse after Egypt's long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak was driven from office by a popular revolution in February 2011. Most of the Egyptian security forces were withdrawn and, while politicians in faraway Cairo squabbled, the men of violence ruled the desert.

Extremists expelled by Hamas - the organisation that controls Gaza and is itself classified by Western governments as a terrorist outfit - set up shop in Sinai; so did Salafist fighters from Yemen, Somalia and even Russia.

Last August, extremists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, loaded their stolen armoured vehicles with explosives and drove them into Israel; the plot was foiled only when Israeli air force jets bombed the vehicles.

Other terrorist attacks followed, culminating in the recent and audacious attempt to assassinate General Ahmed Wasfy, the commander of Egypt's Second Field Army, which is responsible for Sinai.

The government's inability to control the situation was one of the main justifications advanced by the military for removing president Mohamed Mursi from power last month.

Estimates on the number of militants vary: Egyptian military sources claim that they are dealing with "not more than 100", while Israeli military intelligence experts claim that the total may be about 1,000.

But there is no doubt the extremists have gained access to previously unattainable levels of firepower, including heavy machine guns and shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, all from the immense stocks of Soviet-era weapons held by Libya and now spilling throughout the Middle East.

The threat was considered serious enough to have prompted last week's temporary closure of the airport at Eilat, Israel's southern tourist hub. General Benny Gantz, the Israeli chief of defence staff, estimates that it's only a matter of time before civilian airliners flying near the border with Sinai will become permanent targets.

Although neither side is willing to admit it, Israel and Egypt are now closely collaborating in trying to restore order to the region. The size of the Egyptian military presence in Sinai is closely regulated by the 1979 peace accord between the two nations, but most of these restrictions have now been tacitly lifted by Israel.

It is likely that last week's drone attack, which killed six militants and destroyed a missile dump in Sinai, was perpetrated by Israel, although the Egyptian military claims that its forces were responsible for the operation.

Meanwhile, the vast intelligence resources of the United States are now increasingly being directed to the region, with satellites targeting the area and scanning the surrounding seas for any suspicious movements.

But short of better governance and improved economic opportunities, Sinai seems destined to become the newest destination for Islamic extremists, another dot on the map of a growing number of what US military planners euphemistically refer to as "ungoverned spaces".

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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