In some ways, the Sinai Peninsula is an idyllic corner of the Middle East. It has coastal resorts and coral reefs. This is where a bearded Charlton Heston, playing Moses, received the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film. Then there’s the reality: Islamist militants are making their home in the rough terrain stippled with caves, launching near-daily attacks on Egypt’s military and its police. Tourists are staying away from the region, which looks more and more like Pakistan’s lawless frontier.
The Egyptian strip of land bordering Gaza and Israel has become a hotbed for terrorists. In recent days, the militants have killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens more, prompting Egypt’s military to launch a major crackdown. But in the aftermath of Egypt’s second presidential ouster in as many years, the nation is largely leaderless. Analysts say its military, which receives $1.3 billion in aid from Washington each year, may not be up to a challenge that threatens to upend what security still exists in the region.
During President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the Sinai appeared relatively stable—“but it wasn’t,” says Ruth Wasserman Lande, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Traditionally nomadic Bedouin groups suffered from a lack of water, electricity, infrastructure, and employment, fueling their resentment of the government. They complained of being treated like second-class citizens while Egyptians in the mainland enjoyed greater economic opportunity. So the Bedouins, in exchange for cash from extremist groups, smuggled drugs, weapons, and people to the borders of Israel and Gaza.
When Mubarak fell, his security and intelligence apparatus, which monitored the Sinai, deteriorated quickly. The military pulled away to handle other pressing matters. As Egypt sank into dysfunction, analysts say, extremists escaped from mainland prisons and headed to the Sinai. Hamas militants from neighboring Gaza, too, saw it as a destination.
They weren’t the only ones. “Many al-Qaidaelements from Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw Sinai as a vacuum, like in Afghanistan or northern Mali, to establish a base of operations,” says Daniel Nisman, Middle East and North Africa intelligence director at Max Security Solutions, a security-risk consulting firm based in Israel. At this point, up to 2,000 militants operate in the region. Some analysts believed that Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, would quell Hamas attacks against Egypt, because he had better relations with the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; now that Morsi is gone, the attacks have become more frequent. Days after Morsi’s ouster, militants bombed the natural-gas pipeline that brings fuel to Israel and Jordan, another U.S. ally. Meanwhile, online jihadi forums have chattered recently about training camps in the Sinai for those who want to join the fight in Syria or battle the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, says Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who notes that these rumors are unconfirmed.
Organized crime adds to the chaos. Locals “act like a mafia,” Nisman says, sometimes terrorizing a hotel area if owners don’t pay for “protection.” Kidnapping is rampant: Earlier this year, Bedouins freed two American women, reportedly in exchange for the release of four of their tribesmen by police; a busload of 50 German and British tourists were abducted in January. Disadvantaged Sinai Bedouins need more economic opportunities so they can turn from radicalism, says David Schenker, also of the Washington Institute. “Nobody’s going to be doing that anytime soon, regrettably.”
And so Egypt was set to launch its third recent counterterrorism offensive Friday in the Sinai. “The Egyptian military is simply not trained for a counterinsurgency role,” Nisman says. American aid should move from F-16 fighters and Abrams tanks to drones, high-tech matériel, and training to “track these groups through the mountains and hunt them down,” he says. The military is skirting the dangerous mountain areas because it worries militants would shoot down helicopters and kill troops in large numbers, which would be “a big embarrassment.”
Retired Maj. Aviv Oreg, former chief of the Israeli military intelligence’s global jihad desk, calls that tough terrain “the Tora Bora of the Sinai Peninsula.” Military action is even tougher now that the region is flooded with weapons, including antiaircraft and antitank weapons from Libyan arsenals looted after the fall of despot Muammar el-Qaddafi. Still, Oreg says of Egypt’s military, “they are the best ones available.”
The Camp David accords, which returned the Sinai to Egypt from Israeli control in 1982, placed strict limits on the military’s presence in the area. Though Israel has rubber-stamped Egypt’s requests for more forces and weapons for recent operations, the attacks sparked growing calls in Egypt to rework the treaty to allow the military more freedom. Israel balks at this. Camp David “is the only thing, apart from the mutual security interests, that is holding the relatively cold peace,” Lande says.
So Israel is finishing a defensive wall along the border to stifle smuggling, and it deployed the Iron Dome missile-defense shield to protect the southern city of Eilat. “If an attack on the border leaves one Israeli soldier dead, we can contain this,” Oreg says. “But what if missiles firing on Eilat fall on a hotel, and 50 people get killed?” If defensive measures fail, Israel has only bad options: to appear complacent in the face of attack, or to violate Egypt’s authority in the Sinai and risk uniting terrorists there with ordinary Egyptians against Israel.
But Egypt’s military has a full plate trying to improve the economy and run the country. If the Sinai crisis worsens and Israel is forced to react to a spectacular attack, the peace treaty could go the way of the tourists.