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In Egypt's Sinai desert, Islamic militants gaining new foothold

By Ernesto Londoño,

RAFAH, Egypt — Vast areas of Egypt’s Sinai desert have descended into lawlessness in recent months, providing fertile ground for small cells of extremist militants that have emerged from the shadows and quietly established training camps near the Israeli border, according to Bedouin elders and security experts.

The militants include men who have fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, as well as Islamists who were released from prison after the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and drove much of his potent security apparatus underground.

Drawing little notice during a period of dramatic developments in Cairo, the militants have become increasingly bold and visible amid a broader breakdown of security in the strategically important desert, a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. The eclipse of authority has also given rise to Sharia courts run by Islamic scholars who settle disputes according to Islamic law.

The Egyptian government’s failure to restore order in the Sinai has unnerved Israel, in part because of a recent attack on an Israeli border post. Some local residents worry that Israel might ultimately respond unilaterally, a prospect that alarms those who survived successive wars in the Sinai between the neighbors in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In one year, this could all become extremely dangerous,” said Nassar Abu Akra, a merchant and elder in the area who fears that the rise of a violent militant movement could spark a crushing response from Israel. “If Israel responds to protect its land, it would be a disaster — a massacre. Even normal people, not just jihadis, would fight and die if Israelis came back.”

U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about deteriorating security in the Sinai. The subject is all but certain to come up during Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Cairo this weekend, particularly because two U.S. citizens were reportedly kidnapped in the area Friday.

(Read correspondent’s diary: Taking a trip to North Sinai.)

The Sinai peninsula was contested territory for much of the past century, largely because it is a gateway to the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and Red Seas. Israeli forces occupied the Sinai in 1956 and 1967 and fought a war against Egyptian troops in the following decade. Egypt regained full control of the Sinai after the 1979 peace treaty brokered by the United States.

A U.S. Army battalion consisting of several hundred soldiers is stationed in the Sinai as part of an international peacekeeping force.

In the recent turmoil, militants have been carrying out attacks on lightly armed police officers in recent months and have repeatedly bombed the pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel. Bedouin tribesmen with grievances against the state, meanwhile, have kidnapped foreign tourists and international peacekeepers. Drug runners and human smugglers have also seized the moment, making both lucrative trades increasingly violent.

Soon after Egyptians rose up in Cairo in late January 2011 against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, residents in northern Sinai went on a looting rampage, burning police stations and other symbols of a state that became despised for the heavy hand of its security forces and the few services it offered to the residents of the impoverished, barren area.

As Mubarak was ousted, the black-clad police officers who for decades treated bearded men in the Sinai as terror suspects melted away. Police stations and checkpoints were reduced to piles of ashes and debris. Soldiers took up positions along the road that connects Cairo and the Gaza Strip, barricading themselves inside tanks and other fighting vehicles surrounded by walls of sandbags.

As pillars of the police state eroded, hundreds of Islamists left prison — some through release orders, others by breaking out. Maree Arar, a 41-year-old with a scraggly beard, was among those freed Islamists. Arar said he does not endorse acts of violence committed in the Sinai by militants, some of whom he said he knows, but they ought to be seen in proper context.

“They feel that there is still lingering injustice,” he said while fiddling with an iPhone. “We still have prisoners we want to get out; there are violations against our brothers in Palestine; there is a war on Islam all over the world. They are affected by it. They can’t control themselves.”

‘The law is not respected’

Retired Egyptian Gen. Sameh Saif el-Yazl, who heads a center for political and strategic studies in Cairo, said the status quo in the Sinai is untenable. Hard-line fighters in the Sinai include men who fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, he said. They have joined forces with Islamists released recently from prison.

“They want to impose Islamic law over the state,” said Yazl, whose views on security matters are widely seen as reflective of those of the country’s military chiefs. “The government must impose its control and rule over Sinai. Right now the law is not respected.”

A police official based in the Sinai city of Arish said in an interview that respect was the least of his worries. Men like him are being hunted.

“We leave our families to do our duties,” said the officer, who spoke at a beachfront cafe just above a whisper and insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Why are we coming home as dead bodies? We want to know why. If we are being targeted, let us leave this place for the people and the army.”

Ibrahim el-Meneey, a powerful Bedouin tribal elder who lives a few miles from the Israeli border, said that arrangement would be ideal, as long as the military sticks to guarding the road. The tribes, which have stockpiled everything from small arms to antiaircraft missiles, are doing a fine job of dealing with violent human smugglers, drug runners and other miscreants who have taken advantage of the security vacuum over the past year, he said.

“Here, it’s all tribes,” Meneey said, sitting on a moonlit sandy patch outside his house, which is close enough to Israel that cell phones roam onto the country’s mobile networks. “Security is very stable.”

The increasing boldness of militant cells in the area does not yet concern him, Meneey said, noting that he does not share their goal of creating an Islamic caliphate. The fighters who set up a small training facility about three miles from his home earlier this year are respectful of locals, and number no more than 150.

But he worries that such groups could evolve into a powerful movement with links to militant groups in Palestinian territories and other Muslim countries. For the time being, there is little support for the budding jihadist cells among the members of his tribe, the Sawarka, the elder said. That could change, he cautioned, if the government once again carries out indiscriminate arrests.

“The bedouin is a peaceful being,” Meneey said, sipping sweet tea. “But if he feels humiliated, he will never forget. The government has to work quickly to deliver justice.”

If the Egyptian government fails to find the right approach to restore security and services, he said: “This could become like a second Afghanistan. It could become an international war.”

Residents assume state functions

Whether or not armed conflict is imminent, Sinai leaders say they have increasingly taken on tasks the state is not performing. Roughly six months ago, Hamdeen Abu Faisal, an Islamic scholar, became among the first in the region to set up informal tribunals that settle cases that would normally be the jurisdiction of local courts.

“The people started to need someone to sort out their problems,” Faisal said. “There are no functioning courts, police stations or district attorneys.”

The courts are not imposing corporal punishments, Faisal said, and are only arbitrating disputes among people who agree in writing to adhere to the decision of the scholars.

“Don’t worry,” joked Faisal, who was among the Islamists detained following the 2004 bombings in Taba, a resort town then popular among Israelis. “We don’t use whips.”

Ingy Hassieb and Hassan Elnaggar contributed to this report.

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