For many years now, going back to the days of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s security strongman Field Marshal Muhamed Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces-SCAF and Egyptian Defense Minister, has refused to commit the Egyptian army to fighting Bedouin insurgents in the Sinai desert.
His reasoning: A national army doesn’t make war on its own people – i.e., fellow- Egyptians. This task belongs to the Interior Ministry’s security force of 300,000 men, which is larger than the Egyptian army though inferior in equipment and training.
It was this policy which opened the door to the emergence of a new, highly proficient brand of Bedouin terrorism, a lethal cocktail of Iranian and Al Qaida tactics and influences.
Mubarak resolved the dispute over responsibility for Sinai security by assigning it to Egyptian Intelligence Minister, the late Gen. Omar Suleiman, who mustered special units from Egyptian military clandestine services to secure Sinai – up to and including the banks of the Suez Canal, through which 7.5 percent of the world’s sea trade passes.
During Suleiman’s six-year watch – from 2005 up to the February 2011 revolution – security in the peninsula went from bad to worse.
In the early years, Palestinian, Iranian and Al Qaida arms smuggling networks marked out stamping grounds and routes in Sinai and the neighboring Gaza Strip. Since then, the networks have mushroomed. Today, Sinai is host to the biggest and most active centers in the Middle East for the illicit traffic of arms, fighters, money, drugs and stolen goods. Nearly a million Sinai Bedouin tribesmen are employed in keeping the smuggled goods on the move.
Sinai Bedouin aspirations to self-rule
Many are descendents of 14th and 18th century migrant waves from the Arabian Peninsula, which makes them relative newcomers to this ancient land bridge, well trodden by conquerors, between Asia and Africa.
No Middle East land, including Israel, is without its Bedouin denizens – their total number in the Middle East and North Africa is estimated at 10 million. Bedouin smuggling rings can therefore call on tribal connections in every corner of those regions.
In this way, the Bedouin have evolved into a vibrant, affluent emerging Middle East force in their own right, without ever doffing their caps to any outsiders, including the military and counterterrorism services of their host governments.
The Egyptian revolution which overthrew Mubarak gave the former nomadic tribesmen their big chance to separate Sinai from the main body of Egypt and gain Bedouin self-rule, the dream of every minority in this part of the world.
They envisaged a state of their own in the arid, rugged peninsula, which is blessed with strategic coasts on the Mediterranean in the north, the Red Sea in the south, the Gulf of Aqaba in the east and the Suez Canal in the west.
Bedouin tribal leaders are not thinking in terms of absolute independence, inspired rather by the example of Hamas rule over the Palestinian enclave in the Gaza Strip, in which Egypt, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and even Israel rarely dare to interfere. So why not establish a similar Bedouin enclave in Sinai? they ask themselves.
This design has gained impetus from the lack of coherent government in post-Mubarak Cairo. It has also been hobbled by innate Bedouin territorialism and rigid norms.
Young Bedouin escape rigid tribal customs to form lawless bands
Each tribe jealously guards its boundaries against trespassing by non-members, even barring through-passage without permission from tribal chiefs. It is unthinkable for a Bedouin from one tribe to marry into another. So the power, strength and affluence the Bedouin people of Sinai have accrued in recent years is curtailed by their tribal rules and norms.
Members unwilling to bow to the laws and traditions are expelled from the tribe. They must then find turf to call their own between the wandering tribal seam-lines in the desert.
Gradually, in the past year, a number of young renegade Bedouin, who turned their backs on the rigid tribal rules governing their lives, banded together in lawless groups in the high central Sinai peaks and went in search of money and weapons.
Fervent Islamists, they called their groups such names as the “Brigades of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed in Gaza.” Some hitched onto Al Qaida cells who had decided to set up bases in Sinai instead of continuing on to their original Middle East destinations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources disclose that two of these bands of radical young Bedouin rebels – one from Jebel El Halal and the other from the Al-Mahdia region – were responsible for the coordinated Egyptian-Israeli border attacks of August 5. They killed 17 Egyptian troops and blew up their base before breaching the Israeli boundary in a stolen Egyptian APC packed with explosives, which the Israeli Air Force blew up 1.5 kilometers inside the country.
Easy marks for Tehran to recruit for terrorist missions
Having thrown off the yoke of tribal affiliation, these Bedouin bands were receptive to outside penetration by Palestinian groups tied to Tehran, like the Jihad Islami of the Gaza Strip, and Iranian agents funneling weapons to the Gaza Strip through Bedouin smuggling rings.
These cross-links complicate the investigations American, Israeli and Egyptian counterterrorism agencies are conducting to get to the bottom of those attacks and, most of all, find out how they were all caught unawares, although Israel claims the Shin Bet was forewarned.
Most of the fingerprints point to Tehran first and Al Qaeda next.
The investigators find it hard to credit the rough al Qaeda smugglers with the sophistication and strategic breadth displayed by the twin attacks.
The operations clearly aimed at sabotaging the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty by massacring Egyptian and Israeli troops, while also deepening the discord between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood – which is already happening.
It is also hard to imagine Al Qaeda being part of a local conspiracy for young Bedouin renegades to use a terrorist attack for seizing control of the northern banks of the Suez Canal and so sideline the Bedouin tribal elders.
A senior US source close to the investigation told DEBKA-Net-Weekly’ that this degree of far-sighted vision and competence is beyond even the top Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“The only individual I know of in the region with the kind of strategic breadth and operational competence for pulling off this attack,” said the source,“is Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Al Qods Brigades.