The White House spent hours on the phone with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak this week threshing out a new US intelligence report covering the July 23 Sharm el Sheikh attacks, in which al Qaeda bombers were able to kill an estimated 89 people and injure 700.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that two of the officials Mubarak talked to were secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. They called after asking the CIA to explain how the agency had been caught napping by the penetration of al Qaeda’s terrorist rings to the Sinai Peninsula. They came perilously close to placing in harm’s way the American troops based in Sinai – as evidenced by the explosive device detonated near the US-led multinational force’s air facility on August 15.
The CIA was also asked how an al Qaeda rocket team was able to access US warships docked in Jordan’s Aqaba on August 19, placing at risk a primary sea route for bringing supplies to US troops in Iraq. Another troubling query referred to the creeping al Qaeda penetration of the Gaza Strip, seen as a menace to President George W. Bush‘s plans for winding down the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Last Tuesday, August 23, al Qaeda’s Gaza base released its fifth communique in two weeks, claiming gunfire against Israelis in the Gaza Strip.
One explanation the CIA’s Sinai report offered for the success of al Qaeda’s incursions is the fact that the 1.2 million Bedouin and Palestinian inhabitants of the desert peninsula are on the brink of an uprising against the government in Cairo. They are glad to welcome any outside assistance for mounting resistance against the Mubarak regime and Egyptian security and intelligence agencies.
Al Qaeda seized this opening to plant its cells deep inside the peninsula and reached a point of vantage for striking Suez Canal shipping.
The 14-kilometer international waterway that carries much of the West’s oil cuts through from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and connects the eastern and western hemispheres. The Sinai Peninsula ends on its eastern bank. Egypt’s top foreign currency earner, canal revenues this year passed $3bn, a record high in its 135-year history.
Locals fight Egyptian security, help al Qaeda
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that the compilers of the Sinai report have convinced the Bush administration that al Qaeda has carved out a continuous corridor for running its terrorist teams from Syria that circumvents the US military presence in Iraq. That corridor transits Jordan, Sinai and Egypt. The only way to choke off this passage before it spreads further is to appease the Sinai Bedouin and satisfy their complaints against Cairo.
Relations at present are rock bottom. Egyptian security forces in Sinai have been treating the local Bedouins and Palestinians with extreme brutality, making them feel like a conquered people living under a tyrannical regime. So severely alienated are the locals that instead of assisting Egyptian forces hunting for al Qaeda networks – as part of the joint Aqaba-based US-Jordanian-Egyptian war on terror – they are attacking them.
Indeed, the Egyptians cannot tell who blew up Egyptian armored cars Wednesday and Thursday, August 24 and 25, killing at least four Egyptian officers – al Qaeda or aggrieved local Bedouin.
The armored cars were hit by a roadside bomb near Hasana, 75 kilometers south of El Arish. According to our sources, the Egyptian unit was caught in a bomb trap, not just a single device, and there were more casualties and damage than Cairo admitted. Al Qaeda very likely plotted the bomb trap and its local helpers willingly planted it.
El Arish is described in the Sinai report as the focus of local hostility. Its 160,000 inhabitants are afraid to set foot in the street for fear of being arrested, beaten up or otherwise humiliated by Egyptian security men posted on every corner. Almost every house has been broken into and its contents smashed by Egyptian thugs hunting al Qaeda.
Violent Bedouin and Palestinian robber gangs have sprung up. They exploit the terrorized population to extort money and goods from them, while lying in wait for vengeance on their Egyptian tormentors. Al Qaeda has had no trouble penetrating these gangs and using them for its own ends.
In the conversations this week between the White House and the presidential palace in Cairo, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report every effort was made to persuade Mubarak to seriously tackle the worsening situation in Sinai. He promised he would, but according to our sources, nothing has changed. The situation there is close to blowing up.