On Nov. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin solemnly vowed to punish those responsible for the downing of a Russian airliner over Egyptian Sinai “wherever they are hiding.” But even though he now knows exactly who is responsible and where they are, his hands are tied.
Russian investigators discovered that the Islamic State’s Sinai wing had sabotaged the Metrojet flight on October 31 by smuggling a bomb on board before the plane bound for St. Petersburg took off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh. All 224 passengers and crew were killed.
Egypt consistently dismissed the Russian charge of a terrorist attack on the plane as lacking proof.
Last week, at a press conference in Moscow, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Russian Federal Security Service, announced a reward of $50 million for information leading to the perpetrators of the attack.
This week, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources exclusively uncover the information which the Russians and the Egyptians are holding back.
Renegade Egyptian officers went to ground with the Sinai Bedouin
The attack was plotted and executed, our sources have discovered, by a small group of no more than six to nine former high-ranking Egyptian officers, including generals, colonels and a brigadier general, who deserted the army during the two years since the rise of President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi to power.
Not all of the plotters are followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi toppled, but they are all fiercely opposed to the president. They fled to the Sinai Peninsula in fear of being caught, convicted of treason by a martial court and executed. Some of the deserters first sought asylum with the Palestinian extremist Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, but soon relocated to the Sinai when they realized Hamas was likely to turn them in.
In Sinai, there are very few places to hide unless shelter is provided by one of the 27 Bedouin tribes which effectively rule the peninsula.
These tribes offered the deserters sanctuary – partly out of the Bedouin’s cherished tradition of protecting their guests in all circumstances, and partly to take advantage of the fighting and training skills possessed by the fugitive Egyptian officers for establishing a modern, professional command system.
But most of all, they were moved by their hatred for El-Sisi and the Egyptian army, whom they hold responsible for all of their woes and against whom they have declared a blood feud.
Sawarka tribe: From smugglers to terror scourge of Sinai
Most of the renegade Egyptian officers opted to shelter in the last two years with the 10,000-strong Sawarka tribe, where they feel safest.
Their choice was governed most of all by this tribe’s structure, military abilities and wide connections among the terrorist groups which have sprung up across North Africa and the Middle East, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
DEBKA Weekly describes the special traits of the Bedouin Sawarka tribe.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Sawarka specialized in the smuggling of merchandise and drugs from Sinai to Israel. But in 2005, they branched out into terrorism and have since grown into a major headache for Israeli and Egyptian security agencies.
“It is the most problematic and dangerous tribe in the Sinai,” said an officer in the Israeli Police’s intelligence division, who for several years lived undercover among the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai and became closely acquainted with their ways.
“No one today dares challenge them,” he reported – and that goes for the Egyptian army and police. Anyone infringing on their territory or sources of revenue faces cruel punishment.
Feared by all other 26 Bedouin tribes
The Sawarka are today accounted the biggest terror threat in large parts of the Middle East, much bigger than ISIS and Al-Qaeda put together. They command vast stocks of weaponry and control all the main roads in Sinai, the police officer said.
Their turf spreads out over the northern half of the peninsula between the Gaza Strip and the Mediterranean town of El Arish. They are dreaded by their fellow 26 Bedouin tribes and all those with business in the peninsula.
Their knowledge of every rugged inch of Sinai and every grain of sand is unsurpassed; they are also familiar with all the desert bypaths and escape routes, and are so able to defy and elude any military force sent to root them out.
The Sawarka, which can field 2,500 fighting men plus reserves, are organized in units of 70-100 men. They are reputed to be very brave fighters combining the guerilla skills of the Hizballah of Lebanon, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Yemen’s Ansar Al-Sharia.
The tribe is awash with shoulder-fired missiles, antiaircraft missiles, Kalachnikov and M-16 rifles, machine guns, grenades, Grad surface missiles, mortar bombs and long-range Fajr missiles.
Ibrahim Al-Manai is in charge of the tribe’s smuggling operations and maintains liaison with Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the self-styled Sinai Province of the Islamic State, which took responsibility for downing of the Russian plane.
In 2013, Al Manai sat in a Cairo café for the one and only interview he ever granted, and told the Egyptian interviewer that his tribe would never let anyone spoil its “garden of Eden” in Sinai or destroy its bases of war. For the Sawarka, he said, Sinai is an enormous training ground and meeting place for sharing knowledge with terrorists from across the Middle East including Al-Qaeda.
Egyptian ex-officers hired to mastermind the airliner bombing
He boasted that the tribe’s fighters were adept in the use of a whole range of missiles, mortar bombs, and rockets and unmatched in combat in the desolate areas and deep wadis of Sinai. His boast conveyed a transparent threat: Any military force entering the tribal domain, did so at the risk of being destroyed.
The deal which the fugitive Egyptian officers struck with Sawarka chiefs is outlined here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources:
For a fee running into several million dollars, the ex-officers agreed to infiltrate the rings of Egyptian security around Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
When half the sum was paid out by the Islamic State, a group of ex-officers joined by expert bomb-makers began building the device that caused the plane to crash. Another group recruited serving Egyptian officers and enlisted men who shared their sympathies, to set up an infrastructure inside the airport for planting the bomb aboard the Russian airliner.
Their plan was to hide a time bomb in a soft drink can, and have it placed on one of the food trays wheeled on a cart through the Russian plane’s cabin.
That infrastructure was mainly drawn from kitchen workers who catered the food for the flight. Bedouin airport personnel were enlisted to the team of terror operatives.
The small explosive device was planted on a food tray
Our sources report exclusively that the bomb-rigged can was indeed put on one of the food trays slotted into a food cart. It contained only a small amount of explosives, less than 500 grams, which is the reason that the plane broke in two after the bomb went off.
Even now, no one in authority in Cairo dares go after and punish the renegade officers who masterminded the Russian plane disaster with the connivance of the Sawarka tribe hosting them – even though President El-Sisi and Egyptian intelligence know their exact whereabouts in Sinai and identities.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources, the Russian President Putin and FSB head Bortnikov are privy to all this knowledge. But, like the Egyptians, they too would rather not risk going to war with the Sawarka.
Anyway El-Sisi would never stand for Russian military strikes on sovereign Egyptian territory.
And so it is much easier to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq than it is to blast the Sawarka in Sinai, as the Egyptian army knows all too well.
The two days Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu spent in Cairo this week went on smoothing over relations between Moscow and Cairo after their argument over the Metrojet disaster’s perpetrators
Both realized that punishing the ferocious Swarka tribe and hunting down the delinquent Egyptian officers were non-starters lest a broad anti-government mutiny be sparked in the Egyptian army.
And so a Bedouin tribe with 2,500 tribal fighters and a handful of Egyptian military renegades was able to get away scot-free with murdering 224 people.