What was so special about the terrorist attack carried out from Sinai Monday, June 18 on an Israeli work crew building the 260-kilometer Israel-Egyptian border fence?
It was clearly special enough for David Michael Satterfield, Director General of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) for Sinai, to be urgently summoned from his Rome headquarters to Washington – not for a briefing on the turmoil in Egypt (about which a separate article in this issue) – but, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources, because that particular attack was al Qaeda’s first suicide operation on Israeli soil using Saudi and Egyptian jihadis.
One came from Jeddah and the other from Marsa Matrouh on specific assignment to “kill Jews.”
Satterfield made no bones to his superiors at the Pentagon and State Department about the severity of the peril posed by the mayhem in the Sinai Peninsula. He reported that Egypt had lost control of that territory, even after deploying thousands of troops and armored vehicles including tanks there. Marauding bands, made up of a hodge-podge of Bedouin tribesmen, Al Qaeda fighters and Palestinian and Egyptian Salafites, were now the masters of the rugged desert peninsula.
There was no point in these circumstances in keeping the MFO there, its director stressed. The force’s original mission to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and Sinai demilitarization had been overtaken by events and it should be removed before it is too late.
The multinational force faces daily multiple attacks
To illustrate what he meant by too late, Satterfield reported that the MFO, mostly Americans, had come under 178 attacks since June 1 and were confined to their camps under virtual siege because going outside was too dangerous. The Bedouin and al Qaeda’s acquisition of hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles of all types from Libya had forced the multinational force to abandon one of its key duties, patrolling the territory with dozens of light aircraft.
The MFO director confirmed that the flow of anti-air and surface-to-surface missiles reaching Sinai from Libya through Egypt had swelled in recent weeks to a river. The smugglers had hit on a faster and cheaper route than overland for hauling the contraband to Sinai. They now use cargo freighters plying Mediterranean ports, which stop at Alexandria and Damietta and continue via the Suez Canal to their destination in Sinai, with a logistic hub at Port Said. The containers packed with arms are unloaded on the Sinai shores of the canal, picked up by Bedouin and cached in desert hideouts.
It is very big business. For an idea of the scope of the traffic, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that a single Egyptian army raid Tuesday, June 19, on a house in Port Said – conducted after receiving an intelligence tip-off of a new consignment – discovered lined up in the yard 100 BM-21 Grad rocket launchers (NATO-codenamed M1964) which have a range of 25 kilometers.
A lawless Sinai would suit the Egyptian Brotherhood
As to Egypt’s chances of reestablishing its mastery of Sinai, our military sources consider this very much a matter of motivation:
Egyptian military commanders could manage it by pouring at least two armored divisions plus air cover into Sinai, provided they and their bosses in Cairo had the will and resolve to put Egypt back in charge there.
That will is notably lacking at present: The Egyptian troops deployed there are even less eager than their commanders to tangle with the armed militias and terrorists.
And so Cairo’s authority is ebbing fast and control is slipping into the hands of the Bedouin bands, al Qaeda and armed Salafite militias.
However, if Cairo’s new masters turn out to be the Muslim Brotherhood, US and Israeli intelligence analysts estimate that they would own an interest in maintaining a lawless Sinai on Israel’s border as a loaded gun for the Jewish state and Western interests in the region.
The Brotherhood would justify this by arguing that, although President Hosni Mubarak and the generals who replaced him in power were good friends with the Americans and the Israelis, they never dealt with the anarchic elements roaming free in Sinai, so why would a new regime be expected to succeed before finding its feet in government?
A recipe for Egyptian-Israeli strife
The truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood would find a lawless Sinai a convenience. While formally upholding the peace treaty with Israel to keep American financial assistance on tap, the Islamist rulers could quietly encourage hostile activity against Israel.
To meet this new situation, Israel’s political and military leaders have been quietly building up military strength along the Egyptian border in the expectation of Sinai’s transformation from peaceful buffer to military front.
Seven Israel Defense Forces divisions, some armored, are in the process of formation for deployment soon along that border. It is based on estimates that if a Muslim Brotherhood is installed in government in Cairo and allows Sinai to break away from organized authority, it is up to Israel to prepare for a potential war scenario with Egypt in the coming two to three years.