Tentacles in Sinai

The bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh again raise disturbing questions about the nexus of smuggling, Islamism, and terrorism in the Sinai. In summer 2004, when I was still editor of the Middle East Quarterly, I published an article by Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, who headed Israel’s Southern Command from 2000 to 2003. Almog focused on the smuggling and inflitration network from Egypt into Gaza and Israel a network that’s flourished under the noses of Egyptian authorities. Almog explained the dynamic: “Tolerance for smuggling and infiltration, like anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo and incitement in the media, appears to be designed to relieve some of the pressure exerted by anti-Israeli public opinion in Egypt.”

But Almog warned that this could backfire, in a passage that seems prophetic in light of the subsequent attacks in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh:

There is growing evidence that the smuggling-infiltration network operating from Egyptian territory against Israel is linked at some level to Egyptian Islamist groups. There are Egyptian Islamists who see the border area, and Gaza in particular, as a mini-Afghanistan a point of entry and vector for opening another Islamist front against infidel occupiers. Right now, this cannot take the form of armed volunteers, as in Afghanistan in the 1990s and Iraq today. But there is no impediment to smuggling and infiltration, which could be expanded into more substantial involvement in post-Mubarak circumstances. In the meantime, the smuggling itself is eroding the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, which has always been a prime Islamist objective.

Informally, the Egyptians have signaled that the moment the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved, smuggling and infiltration will be dramatically reduced. The problem, they claim, is driven by the conflict itself and the occupation. But this notion is wholly mistaken. Not only does the smuggling have a strong economic incentive, but it is also linked to ideological groups that have far-reaching objectives, that reject the authority of the Egyptian government and the Palestinian Authority, and that would regard any progress toward peace as a trigger for even more intensive efforts against it. From the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, to horrific acts of terror such as the 1997 murder of fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, the regime has demonstrated its inability to eradicate this Islamist threat. That the regime would succeed, precisely on Egypt’s border with Israel, seems very unlikely.

Almog then added this conclusion:

The smuggling and infiltration network should be regarded as part and parcel of the global terrorism network, and the battle against it as part of the global war on terror. Smuggling constitutes a strategic convergence between the Palestinian terror apparatus in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and global militant Islam. It is a reflection of the strengthening of militant Islam in post-9/11 Egypt and in the post-Saddam Middle East.

Ah, some readers probably said to themselves: another Israeli trying to hitch a ride on the global war on terror. But Almog was right, and the Sharm el-Sheikh attack is proof of it. For the Sinai is also a stage set on which Husni Mubarak receives foreign leaders in sumptuous surroundings. As long as that same Sinai remains an Islamist “vector” toward Israel, some of the terror network’s resources are bound to be spent on the peninsula’s underbelly. I say “bound to” because one kind of Islamist terrorism breeds another. Look the other way when it’s directed against your neighbor, and soon enough it’ll turn around and get you.