ISIS raider hangs flag on MFO lookout post in North Sinai
The first visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Thursday, March 7,heralded a new chapter in the war on the Islamic State in Sinai, one to be fought with petrodollars versus the jihadis’ war chest. The monarch brought President Abdel-Fattteh El-Sisi two large checks: a $20bn guarantee to cover the oil needs of 90 million Egyptians for the next five years, and another $1.5bn listed euphemistically under the heading of “Sinai development.”
Two-thirds of the latter sum – a cool billion dollars – has been wholly earmarked, according to debkafile’s military and intelligence sources, for weaning 13 Sinai Bedouin chiefs from their commitments to supply fighters and other services to the Wilayat Sayna of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ex-Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. The Egyptian army will also acquire hi-tech intelligence tools for fighting the terrorist group holding the peninsula in its grip.
King Salman’s arrival in Cairo, his first since ascending the throne in January 2015, follows a sharp downturn in Egyptian security versus the rampant ISIS threat due to three disturbing developments in the last week of March::
1. A large group of senior ISIS officers arrived in Sinai from their Syrian Raqqa headquarters to assume command of operations against the Egyptian army and security forces. Their arrival coincided roughly with the transfer to the Golan of another group of officers to bolster the affiliated Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade posted there.
The Islamist commanders traveled to Sinai via Iraq and Jordan and were ferried across the Gulf of Aqaba in smugglers’ boats.
2. They carried additional orders to mount terrorist operations from Sinai against Israel. One of their plans is to land sea raiders on Israeli beaches, in the same way as ISIS gunmen attacked tourist seaside resorts in Tunisia and southern Egypt.
3. ISIS has imported into Sinai through Bedouin smuggling rings a new type of extra-powerful Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), which were recently encountered with deadly effect by Egyptian military, intelligence and security forces on Sinai roads.
The Bedouin tribesmen pose an all-encompassing threat to Egyptian forces. They are the Islamist terrorists’ eyes and ears for detecting and betraying their slightest movements in the peninsula. Furthermore, hundreds of “messengers” on motorbikes or camels carry information and orders to and from ISIS commanders before they decide whether to strike or go into hiding from a coming Egyptian assault.
By using these human couriers, ISIS operatives can eschew communication by satellite networks, cell phones and social media, which are susceptible to eavesdropping.
Another service supplied by the indigenous Bedouin is their vast smuggling network, which covers 11,000 kilometers stretching from the eastern Libyan town of Derna to western Iraq and runs through Egypt, the Gulf of Aqaba and Jordan.
All in all, the Bedouin tribes are the Islamic State’s lifeline in Sinai: they move forces and command posts from country to country through clandestine trails, and procure any item ISIS may require to support its campaign of violence, from missiles to brand new automobiles straight off Japanese or South Korean production lines.
No espionage or counterterrorism services, whether Egyptian, American or Israeli, has ever managed to penetrate the secret Bedouin smuggling master hub, from which all orders issue to the sprawling the network.
Israel has its own special problem with this network, since it also serves the Palestinian Hamas terror organization and other radical Salafi groups in the Gaza strip.
ISIS and this vast Bedouin smuggling machine have mushroomed in recent weeks into major hazards not just to the stability of the Sisi regime in Cairo, but also to Saudi Arabia and its oil shipping route through the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal.
Saudi rulers have therefore decided to neutralize the threat by severing the dangerous symbiosis between the Bedouin tribes and the Islamic State’s Sinai wilayat, by using the same means as their peace effort in Yemen, i.e., buying the loyalty of renegade tribal chiefs with hard cash.
King Salman handed President El-Sisi a check for one billion dollars for Egyptian intelligence to spend on winning the Bedouin chiefs away from the terrorists. The balance of half a billion dollars was made available for the Egyptian army to acquire sophisticated intelligence systems, including advanced drones and other items which the Americans have withheld, although they were promised.
The effort to turn the war on terror into a financial contest carries its own risks.
The Saudis may discover that ISIS can match them dollar for dollar, rather than relinquish access to the most wide-ranging smuggling machine in the region. Furthermore, the Sinai Bedouin chiefs are perfectly capable of pocketing money from both sides and carrying on as before
The day before the Saudi king landed in Cairo, it was leaked in Washington that the Obama administration is pondering ending or reducing the US-led Multinational Force and Observers operation in Sinai, since the peacekeepers have become sitting ducks for Islamist terrorists.
The White House has still not answered El-Sisi’s urgent plea for US military back-up to support Egypt’s foundering effort to curb ISIS in the peninsula, although US officials constantly declare their strong commitment to the war on global terrorism.
Saudi Arabia this week showed itself ready to step into the breach left by Washington’s indifference.