Sinai Bedouin: Ruthless Smugglers of Arms, Money, Fighters to ISIS – and Migrants to Europe
This is to introduce the Suwarka Bedouin tribe of northern Sinai, whose territory runs from the Israeli and Gaza Strip borders to El Arish (see attached map). On the quiet, the Suwarka have grown in to one of the most pernicious, powerful and wealthy players on the Middle East map.
Of its 10,000 members, 2,500 tribal fighters own an incredibly vast store of weapons – half for their own use, half for sale and the whole lot procured by criminal means. It includes shoulder-borne anti-tank missiles, anti-air missiles, Kalashnikov rifles, submachine guns, grenades, Grad rockets, mortar shells, long-range Fajr-5 rockets and armored personnel carriers.
The terms of sale often includes tribal hit-men to use the buyer’s purchase against his chosen targets.
Last Friday, July 3, for example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, while fighting the Egyptian army in North Sinai, commissioned the Suwarkas to shoot Grad missiles into southern Israel. Three landed in the Eshkol district. Two exploded harmlessly on open ground.
Israel, identifying the hand behind the rockets, perceived the attack as the opening shot of a confrontation still to come along its 300 km border with Egypt.
The tripartite Bedouin crime cartel rules Sinai
The Bedouin tribes of Sinai are not just kings of the desert, but rulers of a vast smuggling empire that sprawls from the peninsula out across Egypt and Jordan with tentacles reaching into Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. In five years, the Suwarka has earned a cool billion dollars from criminal pursuits, making them the strongest and most prosperous Bedouin tribe in the Sinai Peninsula.
By a combination of mafia-style violence and greasing the palms of government and security officials, including Egyptian army officers, they rule the tourism industry of Sinai. Businesses have to pay protection to survive. Hotels, guesthouses, motels, transports firms and restaurants on the Sinai seaside either pay up and knuckle down or else they are wiped out by mysterious explosions. Murder is no bar.
The Suwarkas are partners-in-crime with the Tiyaha tribe, which rules the lofty central Sinai peaks where ISIS maintains its bases and training facilities. The third partner is the Tarabin, whose territory runs along the Gulf of Aqaba coast of the peninsula.
This tripartite crime cartel has made the Sinai Peninsula its private domain, off-limits to any military or even terrorist entity. Egyptian sovereignty is becoming almost impossible to exert. The lawless Bedouin have transformed Sinai, wedged as it is strategically between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, into the only territorial carrier in the world – for smuggled goods, not aircraft.
Matchless command of Sinai geography
Even the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, when sending reinforcements to its Sinai affiliate from Libya, Iraq, or Syria, is obliged to go through the Suwarka. Iran is in the same boat for moving weapons from Lebanon into the Gaza Strip, and so is Hizballah. The Palestinian Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, can’t transfer a single piece of hardware through its own smuggling tunnels without first asking the Suwarka for permission.
The secret of this tribe’s power, apart from its unbridled ruthlessness, lies in its knowledge of every stone, hole, wadi and cave along the smuggling trails crisscrossing Sinai. No clandestine agency can compare with their inherited familiarity with every detail of Sinai’s harsh geography – certainly not Google Earth or Waze.
Then, too, the Suwarka warriors, the most savage and dangerous of any Sinai Bedouin, often turn to guerrilla tactics, reminiscent of Hizballah in Lebanon or the Taliban in Afghanistan, to achieve their ends.
Anyone daring to touch their sources of revenue or encroach on their prized turf is liquidated on the spot without compunction.
Astonishingly, some Suwarka tribesmen hold to the belief that they are descended from Jewish ancestors and may even observe certain practices, such as ritual circumcision or lighting candles Friday on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath.
Bedouin smugglers abuse migrants, push them out to sea without food or water
While the Suwarka hold a monopoly over Middle East gun-running, the Tiyaha Bedouin prey on the tens of thousands of Libyan, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers on the move. The atrocities they commit against this wretched mass of people run to mass abductions, robbery and killing them to sell body organs to Egyptian traffickers. This tribe confines its victims in camps where they are subject to torture, the women to rape or treated as hostages forced to contact their relatives and beg for exorbitant sums of money as ransom for their freedom.
In the past few months, DEBKA Weekly’s counter terror sources report that the Tihaya have spread their vicious wings into Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Israel. They have won the dubious distinction of being the bosses of the international traffic of African migrants in search of asylum in Europe.
After extorting $3,000 or even $5,000 per head, they put the desperate refugees on dangerous often leaky boats, push them out to sea from the coast of Libya or Sinai and send them on their perilous voyage without food, water or means of navigation.
Some are rescued by Italian, French or British naval craft; many drown at sea and are lost without anyone discovering their identities or how they died.
Terrorists easily planted on migrant boats bound for Europe
Up to 150,000 African migrants are estimated by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees to have set out to cross the Mediterranean this year. At least 1,800 died on the sea in the first five months, five times more than the same period last year. Both are almost certainly low estimates.
Those who do survive are found ailing from dehydration, hypothermia, diarrhea, seasickness, scabies and other skin infections, diabetes, conditions related to pregnancy and some trauma injuries sustained either on their journey or in Libya.
As allies of the Islamic State’s Sinai branch – the Sinai province of the Islamic Caliphate – the Tiyaha place disguised Islamist terrorists on the migrant boats bound for Europe. They reach the West charged with planting terrorists cells without having to pass through port security or leaving any record of their arrival.
The Tarabin, the third member of the Bedouin crime cartel, has its own field of expertise. It runs a paramilitary militia, commanded by Salem Abu Lafi, which rules parts of northern and eastern Sinai including the southern section of the Egyptian-Israeli borderland. The Tarabin also manage the ties between ISIS and the Palestinian Hamas in Sinai.
Abu Lafi is wanted by Egypt. Briefly jailed by Egyptian forces in 2008, he broke out and returned home to central Sinai, where he established the Tarabin militia for protecting the smuggling routes of Sinai and Egypt.
Unchallenged Bedouin, ISIS rule in central Sinai after failed Egyptian bid to dislodge them
Five years ago, the Egyptian army mounted an offensive to wipe out Abu Lafi’s camps and outposts in the central Sinai mountain range of Jabal Hilel. Egyptian forces were thrown back by heavy machine gun fire as they trod the precipitous trails on the mountain slopes. Egyptian armored vehicles were hit by anti-tank rocket and RPG fire before they had reached the Bedouin’s mountain fastnesses, and Egyptian helicopters were targeted by heavy machine guns used by the Bedouin as anti-air weapons.
The offensive ended in cruel Egyptian losses and was never repeated. The peaks of central Sinai have been left since then to exclusive Bedouin and ISIS domination.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s counter-terror sources, the Tarabin run ISIS’s main pipeline for the transfer of arms and fighters from Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia via Jordan to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
Of late, this tribe has also begun smuggling arms and goods to the Islamic State cells taking root in the Gaza Strip. It also serves Hamas for moving arms and other consignments through the tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai.
Israel detains pro-ISIS Bedouin schoolteachers
All attempts to bring this Bedouin crime cartel under control and put the lid on their nefarious activities has run into a major impediment. They range over vast lands that spill across borders, and so the tribes are to be found present in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. While they benefit from the citizenship of each host country, their first loyalty is to their tribes.
And their affiliation with the Islamic State is deepening.
Monday, July 6, the Israeli Shin Bet domestic security service and the Negev regional police department disclosed the arrest of six Israeli Bedouin tribesmen, including four schoolteachers, on charges of promoting the Islamic State and its ideology. Two were picked up while preparing to take off and join up with the jihadis fighting in Syria. The investigation revealed that this group was just the tip of the iceberg.
On June 29, a special security cabinet meeting approved the construction of a 30 km security fence along the southern section of Israel’s border with Jordan, which is largely desert and populated mainly by Israeli Bedouin. The fence intended to impede free tribal movement between the two countries which, of late, is the cover for the transit of Islamist combatants across to Sinai, held by Israeli Bedouin guides and smugglers.