The ultra-ruthless Iraqi Al Qaeda (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – ISIS) has moved in on Sinai, adding Egypt to its eponym.
In the past two weeks, dozens of ISIS fighters have made their way to the peninsula and continue to arrive, according to DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive counter-terrorism sources. These terrorists, battle-hardened and experienced in large-scale attacks, have come to “polish” the performance of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Al Qaeda’s coalition of Islamist militias in Sinai, and raise it to the level of the almost daily suicide bombings besetting Iraq, Syria or Lebanon.
For the first time, Western intelligence officials are opening up on the terrorist peril posed by foreign Islamists taking part in the Syrian war to their host countries in the West upon their return home. This provides a realistic pointer to the expectations from the next chapter of jihadist history.
By moving to Sinai, al Qaeda has narrowed its distance from Europe. It has also gained access to the Sinai arms and drug smuggling rings associated with networks operating in the ports of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Italy, Montenegro and Croatia.
Their access to those countries for terrorist operations is therefore a piece of cake.
The ISIS operatives’ route to Sinai from Iraq’s western Anbar province was traced by counterterrorism officials through southern Jordan up to the Saudi border and prearranged points on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, where they were picked up by Bedouin smugglers’ boats and ferried across to Sinai.
ISIS may reach Israel through Sinai or Gaza
The route was chosen for its desolation. It crosses through broad reaches of uninhabited desert, far from the beaten tracks of Western or local spies able to alert security services to a new influx of terrorists.
Spreading an effective intelligence net across these wastelands would take years and cost many millions of dollars.
The Iraqi Al Qaeda has proved its ability to move with stealth, unopposed by any organized force (except for factional infighting) on any region it chooses to terrorize – whether in Iraq, Syria or Sinai. There is no stopping this belligerent group’s command from moving bands of dozens of jihadis at speed from one point in the Middle East to another.
The suicide bombing on Feb. 16 of an Egyptian tourist bus carrying Christian pilgrims from South Korea was the first landmark operation of the ISIS since it landed in Sinai. It was perpetrated by one of its trained bombers and marked the onset of a wave of suicide attacks in Sinai along with an all-out effort to spill its attacks across the border into Israel.
Our counterterrorism sources say that it is only a matter of time before the newcomers ride into the Gaza Strip on the backs of their many sympathizers and from there, attempt to break into Israel.
Al Qaeda will soon outnumber Egyptian troops in Sinai
Irrespective of the terms of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel has allowed substantial Egyptian military strength to enter Sinai and fight terror in the 19 months since Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis murdered 16 Egyptian soldiers on Aug. 5, 2012.
Under that treaty, Israel has the final say on the size of the Egyptian military deployment in Sinai.
Their number peaked in February 2014 to 11 battalions, adding up to a full division – part armored, part mechanized – backed by fighter planes, combat helicopters and artillery units.
Israel has received promises from Cairo that this task force will soon launch the ultimate assault on the al Qaeda strongholds concealed in the caves and crags of the lofty mountains of central Sinai.
Western military sources are skeptical about this offensive ever taking place.
The drawbacks are multiplying.
Al Qaeda’s numbers in the peninsula are mounting and rapidly approaching the size of the Egyptian military deployment – an estimated 10,000. Al-Maqdis can mobilize 4,000-5,000 men from the Bedouin tribes there and outnumber the Egyptian force.
Egyptian troops, moreover, lack the training in commando warfare and the stamina necessary for prolonged combat in harsh mountainous terrain, which has been dubbed the “Tora Bora of Sinai.”
Two rival al Qaeda branches move into Sinai: ISIS and AQAO
Any major offensive would also be hamstrung in advance by the limitations placed by political and diplomatic constraints on military and intelligence cooperation among the US, Israel and Egypt. For success, this operation would have to be supported by broad intelligence exchanges at every level.
Since there is no prospect of this happening, no one in Washington, Jerusalem or Cairo is even discussing it.
But Sinai’s attraction as a stamping ground for jihadist terrorists appears to know no bounds. And so ISIS is finding itself with some unwelcome company.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is also pushing fighting strength across the water into the lawless Egyptian peninsula – mostly from Yemen.
ISIS is on the bad side of Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – to the extent that he has expelled the Iraqi Al Qaeda maverick from the movement’s ranks.
AQAP, in contrast, is a loyal supporter of Al-Zawahiri.
Therefore, Sinai may well become the stage for bloody combat between two rival branches of al Qaeda.