Sinai on the brink: Arms trafficking and the rise of Egypt's Jihadist groups

Sarah El-Rashidi, Ahmed Eliba and Bel Trew, Tuesday 7 Aug 2012

A deadly attack on Egypt-Israel border Sunday adds to growing fears of security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula, as evidence mounts of terrorist activity among local marginalised groups

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in Rafah city on the Egyptian border (Photo by: Reuter
Egyptian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in Rafah city on the Egyptian border (Photo by: Reuters)

Sunday's bloody attack by unknown assailants on Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula is being heralded as another example of the deterioration of Egyptian state control over the volatile region since the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Following emergency meetings with military, governmental and intelligence officials, President Mohamed Morsi briefly visited the Egypt-Israel border town of Rafah Monday afternoon in a bid to restore people’s confidence in the country's security situation.

Presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali's reiterations earlier Monday that Egypt had control over the explosive area did little to reassure the public when the Egyptian army admitted in an audio statement a few hours later that a group of 35 "terrorists" had managed to kill 16 security officers and wound seven others, commandeer a military APC and penetrate the heavily-guarded Egypt-Israel border.

This led Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak to comment that "once again" there was a "need for Egyptian operation to instil security and prevent terror in Sinai" in a statement published on the Israeli army official website.

The Muslim Brotherhood responded Monday evening with a statement blaming Israeli intelligence agency Mossad for the violence, backing up its allegations with the fact that the self-proclaimed Jewish state had warned citizens to leave Sinai days earlier.

Whoever is responsible, Sunday's explosion was not an isolated event. The attack is preceded by the alleged rise of jihadist groups and increased reports of the seizure of smuggled arms in the Sinai region over the course of the last 18 months.

Islam Qudair, a young political activist from the Sinai, recounts the origins of the problem in the peninsula. He traced the security breakdown along the border strip from Rafah to Mahdiya, Jafiya and Wadi Amr to former security officials under the Mubarak regime.

“[Security officials] used the route for arms smuggling from which they raked in huge profits. They introduced the Bedouin tribes to the trade. Anyone who defied these officials would at the very least face arrest,” Qudair explained. “Following the security breakdown in the wake of the revolution and easy access to Libyan arms Bedouins took over the trade in north Sinai. It is so lucrative that they not only earn a living but can amass fortunes. Now it will take more than just governorate security forces to deal with the trade. Any remedy will have to involve national agencies."

Mohamed Hamad, the son of a tribal chief in Beer Al-Abad, has a similarly bleak prognosis.

"We were shocked at the huge quantity of arms. They came from different sources. Some we know came from Gabal Al-Halal after being smuggled from Israel. Others came along the north coast road from Libya. What is frightening is that guns now speak loudest and are having the last say."

Particularly ominous, in Hamad's opinion, is the growing domestic market for arms. Until recently smuggled weapons mostly ended up in the hands of armed groups in Gaza which had agents in Sinai to take care of the supply operations.

Recently, however, a parallel market has arisen in the form of increasingly active jihadist groups which are attempting to build up arsenals in the peninsula.

Egyptian State TV has speculated that these organisations, possibly colluding with Gaza-based groups, are behind Sunday's border attack. Although presidential spokesman Ali affirmed in his Monday statement that military and civilian intelligence have yet to discover who is responsible.

Hamad explained that before the security vacuum jihadist groups were marginal elements in the tribes.

"They were isolated and ignored because of their ossified ideas. Post-revolution they found a fertile environment emerging in tandem with the rise of political and organisational structures which has allowed them to surface.

"Today they feel they are beyond tribal rule, which jeopardises social structures that have long defined Sinai society. The traditional authority of tribal sheikhs is being undermined by those spouting political and religious catchphrases."

Qudair agrees. "They have formed a network that infiltrates the major tribes and they now have the power to threaten anyone who touches them."

Tribes like the Azazna have been fingered as a source of current tensions in northern Sinai. Half the tribe's members are not recognised as Egyptian citizens. Their identity cards read "nationality unknown", though the tribe has a record of loyalty to the Egyptian state, including being on the front line of defence against Israel in the 1967 defeat and providing valuable logistic support during the 1973 War. Following the peace treaty with Israel the Egyptian government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge them.

In fact, a government report in 2010 said a quarter of all Sinai's population of some 600,000 did not carry national ID cards. The Bedouin account for the majority of this number; they are not allowed to own land or serve in the army and do not benefit from local tourism revenue.

"We don't feel like Egyptian citizens," said Sheikh Ahmed Hussein of the Qararsha tribe, one of the biggest in southern Sinai, to Ahram Online. This feeling of disenfranchisement and state neglect many say has contributed to the problem.

Sensing the urgency of the problem, the former government of ex-premier Kamal El-Ganzouri, granted amnesty to some jailed extremists and called for the revival of several local development projects, including a railway and canal to supply water to central Sinai.

Growing tensions and the spread of arms are also connected with tribal disputes.

"There's an arms race between the tribes who boast of the arms they possess and use them to settle their disputes," says Ahmed Abu Dara from Arish, a coastal city near Rafah, which is reportedly renowned for its jihadist elements.

There is an economic dimension to the problem. Many speak of the oppression young Bedouins face, including arbitrary arrest. One elder from a Suraka tribe told Ahram Online that while he did not expect the government to care much about the Bedouin he also "didn't expect them to leave us living off scraps of land while they built skyscrapers around us."

The streets of Arish are now punctuated with roadblocks, some equipped with tanks, especially outside governorate buildings and the courthouse. In the daytime the security measures may give the impression of stability but not at night, when the gangs prowl.

Interestingly, luxury cars have made their appearance among Arish youth. The word is that they are being paid for from the profits of arms trafficking.

26-year-old Egyptian journalist and resident of Arish, Mohamed Sabry, who has befriended many of the local militants, told Ahram Online he believed that post-revolution more people joined these armed movements as “they no longer fear the consequence of jihad.” Such groups, he added, do not recognise democracy as a means of change.

"Sometimes violence is the only way to achieve your objectives," a self-proclaimed Salafist jihadist from the area, preferring to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online, "We do not believe in democracy; we do not vote. Democracy is atheism."

Observers believe there are two principal jihadist movements in Egypt, both based in Sinai but with countrywide reach: Takfir Wal Hijra and Salafist jihadism. Both factions adhere to an extreme Salafist interpretation of Islam, following Al-Qaeda’s philosophy and goal of re-establishing an Islamic Caliphate.

Hamad agrees that through these jihadist groups do not necessarily belong to a large Islamist organisation, “we are hearing ideas that could come straight from Al-Qaeda.”

However, experts believe that Al-Qaeda itself does not exist in Egypt.

"I guarantee there is no Al-Qaeda presence in Sinai, but the Takfiris are in the thousands," the head of North Sinai security was recently quoted as saying. North Sinai Governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, who also denied the presence of Al-Qaeda, also affirmed the presence of extremist religious groups.

"We often don’t have a name for jihadist groups, so we put them all under the same 'Al-Qaeda' umbrella to simplify matters," explained Mohamed Kadry Said, a military expert with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Takfir Wal Hijra is one of the initial radical Islamist groups founded by Shukri Mustafa to have emerged in Egypt in the 1960s as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the group’s radical ideology, even Muslims that do not share its beliefs are infidels.

"I feel they may be planning to do something with Al-Qaeda in the future. Our intelligence is most likely watching them very closely," asserted Said.

Sabry, however, believes Salafist jihadism poses a bigger threat to national security. The salafist jihadist member who spoke to Ahram Online agreed: "Takfir Wal Hijra are not a threat; they just label atheists; they do not employ violence. We, on the other hand, do.”

Salafist jihadism, as termed by renowned scholar Gilles Kepel, was first identified as a threatening phenomenon in the mid-1990s. Experts claim Salafist jihadists are in the thousands and constitute the largest jihadist force in Egypt, openly embracing violence as a means to reach political goals.

"In order to get freedom, innocent people must die," continued the young Salafist jihadist, claiming that his movement had a following of 10,000 in Sinai and a million around Egypt. "Check out our Facebook page: we have 100,000 likes."

Experts, nevertheless, deny these figures.

Notably, some Salafist jihadists were jailed on charges of participating in the Sinai attacks in 2004 and 2005 that killed some 125 people at the Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm Al-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba. No evidence of their involvement in the attacks, however, was ever produced.

Salafist jihadists were also accused last year of launching an attack on a police station in Al-Arish in which five Egyptian security personnel were killed.

When questioned about Salafist jihadism’s ideology and goals, the primary issues listed include liberating Palestine and establishing an Islamic emirate in Sinai, which many believe has been partially realised in some areas.

"We're following Al-Qaeda's strategy for establishing an Islamic Caliphate by 2020 designed by Osama Bin Laden, God rest his soul," said the young jihadist. "The plan predicted the Arab uprisings, out of which an Islamic state will be born."

Across the border, Tel Aviv is worried about these armed groups which may subscribe to Al-Qaeda-like programme.

"By the end of this year Israel will have completed the construction of the electronic fence along the border with Egypt. This will put a stop to most cross-border infiltrations," explained military expert general Safwat El-Zayatline. "Although Israeli government spokesman Mark Jeff has said that the purpose of the wall is to prevent the illegal transit of persons, we believe that it will minimise the danger of major operations, certainly those involving missiles that individuals can carry."

Israeli research centres, think tanks and government agencies based in the capital are busy assessing the situation in Sinai and drawing up scenarios to deal with what is increasingly seen as a hotspot.

In February, the Director of the Begin Centre Ephraim Anbar, a prominent academic close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, issued a report on the security impact of the Arab Spring on Israel.

One recommendation was for Israel to create a border zone. Some observers took this as a sign that Israel is planning to reoccupy parts of Sinai.

While it would not venture to repeat an occupation the whole of the peninsula the fact that the idea of even a partial occupation was floated suggests that Israeli policy planners are considering a wide range of military options.

"The implications are very serious if the situation [in the Sinai] grows worse," says Said Okasha, managing editor of Mukhtarat Israiliya (Israeli selections), published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "But Israel's current government is not inclined to unilateral military solutions. It would prefer a joint Israeli-Egyptian solution. Signs of this tendency emerged in the phase following the revolution when the Israelis allowed more Egyptian forces in the border area."

Whether terrorist organisations are behind Sunday’s attacks or it is, as the Brotherhood and Hamas have claimed, a Mossad attempt to hinder Egypt’s democratic process, security in the peninsula is a pressing issue for President Morsi.

Views on how Egypt should tackle the problem vary. Following the trend of past Islamist waves in Egypt, some experts claim that heavy-handed police crackdowns have only aggravated the problem.

Others previously believed that the situation would calm down once Egypt's new president was elected – a hope surely dispelled by the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards at the hands of a terrorist group well over a month into Morsi's presidential term.

The issue of domestic security was one of the key points of the presidential 100 day plan – a promise that many are holding the president to. Some political groups and figures are now calling for amendments to the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel to allow a greater Egyptian security and military presence in the Sinai.

In the coming days as Morsi navigates this political minefield, securing the peninsula, reassuring the public that the state has control of area and possibly renegotiating decades-old accords with Israel, are sure to top of the president's growing agenda.

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