Imagine the tribal areas of Pakistan wedged snug against, say, Belgium instead of against Afghanistan. Next imagine that Belgium, usually so good about these sorts of details, hadn’t bothered to erect a border fence to at least try to keep the jihadis in their own yard. This is approximately the situation Israel suddenly faces with the Sinai Peninsula portion of Egypt, except that as a prime target of fundamentalist wrath Israel’s situation actually is even more fraught.
A professed affiliate of al-Qaeda has in fact set up in the lawless expanses just west of the Israeli border. Officially known as Takfir wal-Hijra, or Excommunication and Exodus, the loosely organized group was known around Sinai simply as Takfir until it overran a police station at the crossroads town of al-Arish in late July. There it distributed leaflets announcing itself as Al-Qaeda on the Sinai Peninsula.
“We haven’t seen here a gathering from all over the world, thank God,” says Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, testing the comparison with the Pakistan tribal territories where the al-Qaeda leadership took refuge after 9/11. “Not Uzbeks, Chinese and Chechens. These are all Bedouins so far. For all the similarities there’s a lot of differences. But it’s very worrying.”
A constellation of circumstances came together this year to revive and embolden the group, which for years had been keeping a low profile. First and most important, when Mubarak fell, his interior department police force melted away. Sinai was left wide open. Smugglers move as they wish, bringing in not only cars and other booty from Libya, but also the contents of its armories. “If you want to buy, today, a mortar or a machine gun or even a MANPAD [shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile], all you need is a few dollars and you get it,” Nitzan Nuriel, counter-terrorism adviser to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a security conference in September, according to Reuters. “The level of threat is much more dramatic than it was a year ago.”
At the same time, militant Islamists who had been jailed by the Mubarak regime broke out of prison during the chaos of his fall. Many made for the Sinai. Rugged and remote, it makes a fine hideout at pretty much any time, but especially hospitable since the Bedouin tribes of the area — long resentful of Cairo for its neglect of the population — turned to religious fundamentalism. Schweitzer tells TIME he’s worried that the indigenous extremists and escapees might be joined by even more seasoned and hard core jihadis, perhaps directed to Sinai by the man who succeeded Osama bin Laden: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Before joining al-Qaeda, the Cairo native was a leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and was jailed and tortured after the group assassinated President Anwar Sadat in a bid to turn Egypt into a state governed by radical Islamism. The dream still lives. “I think what bothers me is the fact that since Zawahiri took control of Al Qaeda, he might invest more resources in this area,” says Schweitzer, whose recent paper on the group is titled, “Evil Develops in the South.”
The group can already claim several successes. Most significantly, Takfir is said to have carried out the militarily complex Aug. 18 terror attack that left eight Israeli motorists and soldiers dead along a stretch of highway that runs adjacent to unfenced border. Its involvement would explain a lot. The very day of the attack, Israel immediately bombed the Gaza Strip in retaliation, blaming the attack on one of the usual suspects, a Palestinian militia known as the Popular Resistance Committees. But when no Gaza families mourned their dead, and the bodies of militants were reported to be Egyptians, the question of who carried out the attack became something too delicate for Israeli officials to discuss publicly. By then the incident had already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel — absolutely crucial to Israel since 1979, when the peace treaty demilitarized a border that had been the site of Israel’s worst wars. Egypt blamed the Jewish State for the deaths of eight Egyptian soldiers or police killed in the extended firefight after the in the highway ambushes, and briefly threatened to severe diplomatic ties as a consequence. The governments patched things over, but a furious Cairo mob later overran Israel’s embassy and the peace treaty hangs in the balance.
That’s exactly the follow-on effect the attackers were hoping for, according to Schweitzer, who sees Egypt’s “cold peace” with Israel as vulnerable. That in turn raises the stakes in Cairo, where crowds led by the Muslim Brotherhood are back in Tahrir Square, this time calling for Egypt’s military rulers to leave the chair they assumed when Mubarak resigned. The tumult deeply worries Israel, which mistrusts the Brotherhood almost as much as it counts on the continued dominion of the Egyptian military. After the Eilat attack, Egyptian commanders sent a force of more than 1,000 into the Sinai. Last week brought the arrest of the Takfir head, Mohammad Eid Mosleh, known as Mohammad al-Teehi. As well as the Eilat and Al-Arish attacks, he was called responsible for organizing at least some of the year’s seven explosions on the pipeline feeding Egyptian natural gas to Israel.
New leaders will step up, however, and the the longer Cairo edges toward chaos, the more room Takfir will have to run in the Sinai. “They’ll have more maneuvering room to create this friction they’re trying to create with Israel,” says Schweitzer. “There’s nothing like terrorist attacks from Sinai or even Gaza to ignite the whole area.”