Security in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has swerved into a grim impasse. President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi appears to have been outplayed by a marriage of convenience between the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate and the radical Palestinian Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts uncover certain events which led up to this impasse:
1. The Obama administration this week decided to disband the Multinational Force and Observers, after the MFO had monitored the 1979 Israel-Egyptian peace accord for decades.
This was another US step back in the face of ISIS.
2. President El-Sisi and the Egyptian army have put on hold their operational plans for demolishing terrorist strongholds and fallen back on defending military bases, while engaged in interminable haggling with local Bedouin chiefs to get them to stop providing the Islamists with fighters and intelligence.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources say they are wasting their time. The Sinai Bedouin chiefs are virtually a back number, their traditional standing and authority usurped by the ISIS officers who arrived in Sinai in 2013. These commanders are the idols of the young tribesmen, who defy their elders to fight in Islamist ranks.
US abandons Sinai mission. A Croat hostage is “executed”
The MFO included a US command group at Gora in northern Sinai and a battalion of paratroops based in the southern town of Sharm el-Sheikh – 1,000 troops in all – who were charged with overseeing the restrictions laid down under the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty.
When ISIS attacks escalated, those US troops, like Egyptian forces, were told not to engage Ansar Beit Maqdis terrorists in battle, but to barricade themselves in their camps.
Tuesday, Aug. 11, they received orders to abandon their mission and prepare to pull out of Sinai.
Wednesday, Aug. 12, the ISIS affiliate, the Sinai Province, released a photo showing the execution of the 30-year old Croatian Tomislav Salopek. An employee of the French oil and gas company CGG Ardiseis, he was taken hostage outside Cairo on July 22. The caption in Arabic read that he was killed "for his country's participation in the war against the Islamic State."
Salopek was the first foreigner to be abducted, threatened and murdered by the ISIS Sinai affiliate.
The Islamists were celebrating their success in scaring the Americans into pulling the MFO out of Sinai and bringing the Egyptian counter-terror operation to a halt.
Most of the peninsula, except for two northern and southern enclaves, is now left under the domination of Ansar Beit Al-Magdis, under its new name, the Sinai Province of the Islamic Caliphate.
ISIS and Hamas in cahoots to oust Egypt from Sinai
3. ISIS and Hamas have gone into business together – a secret which both partners deny. Hamas claims to be fighting the Salafi radicals in the Gaza Strip, who occasionally shoot rockets into Israel, while ISIS pretends to seek to overthrow Hamas rule of the Palestinian enclave.
The truth, say our intelligence sources, is that they are working hand in glove in four distinct areas:
- They have split up the arms-smuggling traffic passing through Sinai to the Gaza Strip as follows: Hamas administers the tunnel links, while the Islamic State is responsible for getting the contraband goods needed by Hamas across from Sinai to the Palestinian enclave.
- For this service, ISIS gets an agreed 50 percent share in the arms and military equipment destined for Hamas.
This means that Gaza’s arms suppliers, such as Iran, are obliged to add tons to their shipments to cover the portion handed over to ISIS.
- The two radical Islamist movements’ interests partly overlap at one point: Both are dead set on expelling Egyptian forces from northern Sinai – Hamas is preparing to grab territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip’s border thereby expanding its turf and rule.
For ISIS, the Egyptian military presence in northern Sinai remains an impediment to its capture of the entire peninsula.
Hamas and ISIS need each other to realize their respective expansionist designs. Which of them eventually comes out on top and acquires control of the Gaza Strip to boot is a question left open for later.
Hamas supplies ISIS with homemade IEDs and rockets
- Meanwhile, Hamas is passing to the Islamists all the weapons they need for beating the Egyptian army and driving the soldiers out of the coveted segment of Sinai. Our military sources report that the Hamas arms industry in Gaza is working overtime to supply ISIS with Iranian-designed IEDs for use as roadside bombs against Egyptian troops.
One of those bombs blew up an Egyptian armored personnel carrier in El Arish, Sunday, Aug. 9, killing an officer and a soldier and wounded three others.
The Palestinians are also letting their Islamist partner have Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles with ATGM (advanced spiral trajectory) which are smuggled into Gaza by sea. The Islamists used this missile to sink an Egyptian coast guard ship near Rafah on July 16.
This rush of events in the space of a month has added serious complications to Israeli-Egyptian strategic cooperation, with effect on the ongoing dialogue between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Egyptian president. It has caused strains in the Israeli-Egyptian intelligence partnership for fighting jihadi terrorists.
(More about this partnership in the next article.)