The three main highways to Sinai have become arguably the most dangerous in the world for the ordinary traveler. Anyone venturing on the Gulf of Aqaba coastal road from the Israeli border to Sharm el Sheikh, the Gulf of Suez route from Sharm el-Sheikh to Abu Rodeis, or the Mediterranean road in the north from the Suez Canal to El Arish, faces the very real hazards of being murdered and robbed, taken hostage or being killed to supply the illicit organ transplant trade in the Middle East.
Inland, even Egyptian troops have learned to shun the central Sinai mountain regions of Sheikh Zuwayed and Wadi Feiran as well as Rafah on the Gaza border, where Egyptian security forces have given up any semblance of control. In this rugged square of desert, some 20 or so jihadist and Salafist organizations branching off from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are allowed to range freely.
It is now the most lawless and dangerous place on earth for Westerners since Al Qaeda established its grip on parts of Afghanistan in 1996 and during the years when its terrorist gangs dominated parts of Iraq.
The peril is posed by a unique amalgam of the self-styled Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula allied with disaffected Bedouin tribes and the radical Palestinian Jalalat, Army of Islam and the Hamas’ military arm Ezz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which roam between the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
Sinai Bedouin as al Qaeda’s hired muscle
These fighting groups are bound by an unwritten code, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report: None interferes in the other’s operations or inside affairs, but they all come to the aid of any group under attack and fight together to ward of the threat.
Because of this code, Egyptian troops on mission to reestablish sovereignty over the lawless areas have been forced to retire in defeat – especially when they attempted to climb the narrow, precipitous tracks to flush out terrorist lairs in the towering mountains (7,497 feet) of central Sinai, where they were easily picked off.
Counter-terror experts say al Qaeda is not the most savage of the lot. That role is reserved for the estimated 700,000 indigenous Bedouin who will commit any atrocity for pay in advance. Their branching tribal clans scattered in most Middle East countries including Israel, their well-established smuggling routes and their lack of inhibitions make them highly effective hired muscle for al Qaeda.
Hundreds of fighters can melt across borders from country to country n the shortest time possible without being caught, in the same way as large freights of arms, including the heavy stuff like anti-air and anti-tank missiles or artillery mounted on civilian vehicles.
Thus, since the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in the summer of 2011, the Sinai Peninsula has become the central depot for the distribution of smuggled Libyan weapons across the region to all and sundry. The US and other NATO members have worked hard to stem the flow of military contraband to Al Qaeda in North Africa, only to discover they were missing another main route, the road running east to Sinai.
Biggest al Qaeda recruitment campaign since 2003
For Al Qaeda, Sinai has become much more than a depot for distributing smuggled hardware. A new international recruiting center is up and running for would-be jihadi volunteers from cross the Muslim world, Western and Israeli intelligence organizations monitoring the movement of Al Qaeda fighters in the Middle East report.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources find that recruitment to al Qaeda has attained a level unprecedented for 26 years, since young Muslims were called to the flag to fight a holy war against Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and again, in 2004, when Osama bin Laden rallied the faithful worldwide to fight the Americans in Iraq.
Western intelligence agencies are not yet clear about which of Al Qaeda’s leaders directed the flow of jihadists to Sinai. They are sure it was not the organization’s formal leader Ayman al-Zawahiri or his close associates. But they haven’t discovered who else in Al Qaeda has the authority, command of resources and organizational ability to bring about the Sinai ingathering – or for what mission.
The Egyptian military junta places no restrictions on the entry of foreign Muslims to the country.
Western intelligence officials can only estimate that, in the last couple of months, 1,700 al Qaeda fighters entered the country through Cairo international airport alone. The arrivals don’t waste time in Cairo, but directly board special buses waiting outside the airport. Half a day later, they are delivered to their Sinai destinations.
Al Qaeda moves its warfront further west
Surveillance drones are banned in Sinai under the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords and understandings on military movements in the peninsula, supervised by the US-led Multinational Force & Observers-MFO. So the only data available on al Qaeda movements there come from US and Israeli spy satellites. Most recent images show at least 30 new al Qaeda training facilities springing up in central Sinai. They appear to be unusually well-ordered and fortified by barriers and high fences blocking the view of outsiders to what is happening inside. Each encampment is arranged in groups of 10-15 tents each, signifying orderly combat units.
Attached to each camp is a physical training space and live fire shooting ranges. The green Al Qaeda flag flutters atop every tent.
The ongoing massing of thousands of jihadist fighters in Sinai and the influx into Syria of seasoned al Qaeda fighters from Iraq (See the separate article on US-Iranian cooperation) add up to a new Al Qaeda warfront emerging in the western part of the Middle East.