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New al Qaeda threat?

August 19, 2011

The cross-border attacks on Israeli commuter buses on Thursday raise the specter of a new al Qaeda-affiliated terror network operating out of the security vacuum in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

A damaged passenger bus after an attack in southern Israel
A new al Qaeda-linked group is blamed for the bus attacksImage: dapd

The worst direct attacks on Israel for a number of years, which left at least seven people dead and scores more wounded on Thursday, have added weight to the belief that radical Salafists, Bedouin tribesmen and disillusioned Hamas militants have joined together in an alliance to form a new al Qaeda franchise in Egypt's Sinai region.

An Israeli Defense Force statement accused Hamas of coordinating the attacks from across the border with Egypt with the group which has been calling itself "al Qaeda in the Egyptian Sinai."

The al Qaeda leadership has not officially recognised this alleged new franchise which has sprung up in the security vacuum created by a police and security forces exodus from the Sinai Peninsula. However it is widely believed that a number of Islamist groups have formed alliances with Bedouin tribes in the region over shared local and regional concerns.

Regional experts, however, are suspicious of linking the Salifist extremists in Sinai to al Qaeda.

"There is no connection between Egyptian extremists and al Qaeda's headquarters in Pakistan and Afghanistan or other radical jihad movements worldwide," Khalil Al Anani an author and specialist in political Islamic affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "There are ideological touch stones, but there is no organizational coordination between them."

Security vacuum

flames rising from a damaged gas pipeline
Islamists have attacked gas pipelines to Israel in SinaiImage: picture alliance/dpa

Whatever the Salafist's allegiances and connections, the Sinai Peninsula is an area primed for an explosion in extremism.

Before the popular uprising centered on Cairo and Alexandria forced the collapse of the Mubarak regime back in February, alienated Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai were already involved in a low-level, armed conflict with Egyptian authorities, mainly over smuggling activities in the region. Once Mubarak's rule had been brought to an end, the Bedouin stepped up their resistance and forced the security forces out.

With state control lost in the region, radical Islamists crossing the porous border from Gaza have increased their interaction with the Bedouin and have made contact with al Qaeda-sympathetic groups such as al-Shabaab al-Islam (The Youth of Islam).

These alliances appear to be based on a core set of demands: the full implementation of Sharia law in Egypt, the revocation of Egypt's treaties with Israel, the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in the Sinai and Egyptian military intervention against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The "al Qaeda in the Egyptian Sinai" group appears to be answering the call of al Qaeda's new leader, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, who recently released a number of recorded messages exhorting Salafists in Egypt to take advantage of the ousting of Mubarak to overthrow the Egyptian state and replace it with Islamic rule.

Israel in the cross-hairs

A masked Hamas militant
Hamas militants may be targeting Israel with al QaedaImage: AP

Thursday's attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers could represent a change in policy where the direct targeting of Israel becomes an al Qaeda strategy.

Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, a Middle east expert at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, believes that, regardless of any al Qaeda affiliation, attacking Israel is a Salafist tactic designed to drive a wedge between Israel and Egypt.

"After the Sinai operations, attacking Israel over the border is the next logical step," he told Deutsche Welle. "There are strong anti-Israel feelings across Egypt, not just Sinai and the Salafists want to exploit that."

"Israel is panicking over Sinai and has been for weeks," he added. "Israel knows the consequences of any potential retaliation on Egyptian soil; a state of conflict, something the Salafists wish to provoke."

On the surface it may seem logical that a shared hatred of Israel would be reason enough for Hamas militants to side with an al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist franchise but Vidino believes the situation is much more complicated than that.

"The relationship between the Salafists and Hamas is extremely complex," he said. "Hamas comes from the family of the Muslim Brotherhood which is more pragmatic and even considers the Salafists to be extremist, while the Salafists believe that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have compromised and have abandoned jihad for politics."

Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said that Thursday's attacks raised questions over Hamas' role in Sinai and that they were counter-productive to one of the Palestinians' main goals; the effort to secure statehood at the United Nations, and could possibly play into Israel's hands.

"It certainly detracts from the Palestinian case and many commentators in Israel and the United States will seize on it to bolster their arguments against the initiative," he told Deutsche Welle.

Egypt and the peace accords

Egyptian army soldiers stand next to their armored personnel carriers
The Egyptian army's hands are tied over operations in SinaiImage: dapd

Egypt's military leadership is now under pressure to take decisive action. Despite launching "Operation Eagle" earlier this week, a series of raids against Islamist groups in the region which uncovered an array of weapons and led to the arrest of a number of Palestinians from Gaza, the Egyptian military's actions in Sinai are subject to restrictions.

A large-scale military operation against the militants is currently impossible due to the restrictions imposed by the Camp David peace accords signed by Egypt and Israel in1979. Those agreements limited Egyptian military deployments throughout the peninsula and effectively demilitarized the area along Sinai's entire eastern frontier, including its borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip.

"There is a huge question mark over what Egypt can do," concludes Vidino. "There is severe lack of police and the army doesn't want to get involved in filling the holes. In Sinai, there is only 30 percent of the pre-revolution police force left. Egypt's hands are tied."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge