It transpires now that forward positions Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established in Sinai and the Gaza Strip executed the coordinated terrorist attacks on Egyptian and Israeli military targets of Aug. 5, in which 16 Egyptian troops were killed.
The operation was charted in Yemen and AQAP commanders came over to Sinai especially to oversee the twin operations from up close, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources.
The initial investigation shows that the terrorists did not plan to kill Egyptian soldiers – only capture their armored personnel carriers for ramming the border and surging into Israel. However, the gunmen found the soldiers gathered at the Mansour base near the junction of the Egyptian-Israel-Gaza borders for the meal to break the Ramadan fast. They died so that the jihadis could capture their vehicles.
American and Israeli investigators are reported by our sources as having discovered that the cross-border attack on Israel from Sinai was approved not just at the regional level by AQAP but by Al Qaeda Central and its top man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have reviewed and endorsed the plan.
This is bad news for the US, whose Sinai contingent heads the multinational force (MFO) posted there. It is feared that an Al Qaeda presence would not only jeopardize that contingent but also imperil Suez Canal shipping.
Israel suspects Egyptian tanks in Sinai are there to stay
It is even worse news for Israel which shares a 260-kilometer border with Egyptian Sinai running from the Gulf of Aqaba in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
And it is a menace to Egypt, whose ruling Muslim Brotherhood is stigmatized by Al Qaeda as heretics to be killed for the sake of instituting Sharia law.
An umbrella organization called “Magles Shoura al-Mujahedin for Jerusalem” was set up for the Sinai-Gaza force which is divided into five separate brigades of jihadi terrorists, who consider themselves integral units of al Qaeda’s operational army in the Middle East.
Last week, a White House official asked Egyptian intelligence officers for an estimate of AQAP numbers in Sinai. He was astounded to hear there were 6,000 armed fighters.
The fact that he had to put the question, even though the US maintains a military and surveillance presence in the peninsula, attests to long years of American denial of the deteriorating security situation there.
This week, Israel was pressed heavily by Washington to permit large-scale Egyptian units, backed by US-made M-60 tanks, enter Sinai, because, it was explained, the armor of the Egyptian army’s Fahd APCs is too thin to withstand the heavy anti-tank weapons of al Qaeda fighters.
Suspecting Cairo of using the opportunity to bring tanks up to the Israeli border, in violation of the 1970 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and keep them there for good, Israeli officials asked the Americans: Where do the Egyptians plan to engage al Qaeda in battle?
The answer they came back with was: Jebel El Halal and Wadi El-Amr, Al Qaeda’s bastions deep in central Sinai will be destroyed.
This confirmed Israeli suspicions.
Al Qaeda in Sinai to leave Egyptian troops alone and focus on Israel
Large tanks with limited maneuverability like the M-60 would never be able to negotiate central Sinai’s rugged mountain terrain, with its fortified caves and narrow, precipitous mountain trails, very much like the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Israelis are very familiar with Sinai geography from their long military presence there.
They know that even if Egyptian tanks were foolish enough to venture that far, Al Qaeda fighters would soon finish them off with the heavy machine guns mounted on their Toyota Land Cruisers and their anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
But the Israelis decided to let the tanks roll into Sinai so as not to give the Muslim Brotherhood rulers in Cairo a pretext for complaining to Washington that Israel was placing obstacles in the path of an Egyptian offensive against Al Qaeda.
The upshot, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, is the arrival of two Egyptian mechanized brigades, one tank battalion and a number of combat helicopters in northern Sinai, far from Al Qaeda’s strongholds. They are stationary. Cairo did promise Washington to launch a major military offensive against Al Qaeda, but the force in place shows not sign of preparing to do so.
After observing sustained Egyptian military inaction, Al Qaeda felt free to exploit it to further its ends.
Magles Shoura al-Muajahedin for Jerusalem sent out a message on Web sites frequented by Egyptian intelligence announcing the group had decided to abstain from engaging the Egyptian army in battle and focus instead on Israeli targets.
However, if Egyptian troops got in their way, they too would come under fire.
That message has one meaning: Al Qaeda is on the warpath against Israel.