Violent skirmishes between Egyptian special forces and Bedouin tribesmen have been raging in rugged central Sinai since last Tuesday, May 25, in an effort to shut down the arms- and fighter-smuggling highway they run on behalf of Al Qaeda and the Palestinian Hamas, debkafile's counter-terror sources report.
The tribesmen have developed a lucrative trade as Al Qaeda's main clandestine pipeline for moving weapons and fighters out of the Red Sea countries of Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and over to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Bedouin also run a regular supply line of arms and goods to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip through the Sinai tunnels.
Of late, the Bedouin have expanded their service to running fighters and weapons into the Gaza Strip to bolster Al Qaeda-affiliates.
Cairo has determined to shut down the cross-Sinai smuggling traffic which has run out of control.
debkafile's military sources report that the scale of clashes has escalated to a pitch comparable to the Pakistani army's battles against Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the Tribal Areas of Waziristan on the Afghan border. But so far, the Egyptian units have made little headway, although backed by armored personnel carriers, artillery and helicopter gunships.
Saturday, May 29, the Egyptians were forced to retire to El Arish in northern Sinai to recuperate, replenish depleted ammo stocks and collect reinforcements for the next round.
Most of the combat is raging around Wadi Omar, a dry valley in central Sinai bounded by 4,800-ft peaks.
Gen. Mohammad Najab, commander of the Northern Sinai sector, and Gen. Rida Svillan, intelligence chief in that sector, are leading the Egyptians in battle.
The Bedouin, mostly Tarabin tribesmen who control central, north Sinai and the Egyptian-Israel border region, are commanded by Salem Abu Lafi, Al Qaeda's most senior liaison man with the Palestinian Hamas.
In 2008, Abu Lafi broke out of an Egyptian jail and headed back to Sinai, where he raised and trained a Bedouin force for securing the important Middle East smuggling routes.
The Egyptian units battering his mountain strongholds were thrown back by massive heavy machine fire on the few narrow paths climbing up the steep slopes and anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade fire on their APCs. The Bedouin fighters are also using their heavy machine guns to hit Egyptian helicopters.
Cairo has cloaked the entire operation in secrecy. debkafile's military sources calculate that the Egyptian force must be taking casualties – some of them fatalities and including dozens of injured men. .
Frictions between the Egyptian authorities and the Sinai tribesmen have worsened since thousands were arrested after a series of bombings of Sinai resorts between 2004 and 2006, even though many were released later. Some of those rounded up admitted that jihadist ideologies had taken hold of young Bedouin tribesmen since the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the strong appearance of Al Qaeda extremists in Egyptian Sinai and Gaza.