The recent killing of 16 Egyptian military police by militants in Sinai, part of an unsuccessful attempted penetration of the nearby Israeli border using a captured armored personnel carrier, appears to have been carried out by jihadi groups from the north of the peninsula along with Palestinians infiltrated from Gaza. But is the accepted narrative true? For a number of years both Egypt and Israel have been having problems with Bedouin tribes in Sinai and across the border inside the Jewish state. The tribesmen, generally regarded as bandits, have carried out kidnappings, sabotage, and have killed Egyptian officials when the opportunity has arisen. Recently, the situation in Sinai has deteriorated due to a weakening of security in general as a consequence of the Arab Spring.
Al-Qaeda affiliated militants carried out a spectacular attack on hotels in the southern resort area of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005, but there is some legitimate skepticism as to whether the group has much of a permanent presence in Sinai. It is particularly interesting to note that the attackers in the latest incident, eight of whom were reported killed by the Israelis, have not been identified, while no one has claimed responsibility. So are they al-Qaeda, Palestinians, or local Bedouins? And what exactly happened, to include a timeline and detailed testimony from the survivors of the attack? The questions are important because there are a lot of conflicting interests playing out in northern Sinai. Israel wanted Egyptian plans to open the Gaza border checkpoints to be canceled, which is what has happened. It also wanted the supply tunnels running between Sinai and Gaza to be closed, which is precisely what the Egyptians are now doing. The Egyptian military meanwhile wanted a major security issue to use as a club to beat the Islamist civilian government over the head. It now has its club, is referring to the militants as “infidels,” and is exploiting its advantage. Civilian president Mohamed Morsi has failed to attend the funerals of the 16 dead policemen due to expected hostile demonstrations against him, some of which have probably been organized by the generals. He has responded by firing several officials, including his chief of intelligence, the head of the military police, and the officer in charge of his presidential guard.
The big losers are inevitably the Gaza Palestinians. They will no longer get the supplies that they have been receiving through the tunnels, can forget about traveling freely to Egypt, and will be subjected to what amounts to a dual Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Recognizing that, the Hamas government in Gaza has itself tightened security in the Strip to forestall more drastic action from Egypt or Israel and has firmly denied that it participated in any way in the attack. It also claims that Palestinian militant groups operating inside Gaza were not involved.
I am not suggesting that the events of August 5 in Sinai might have been contrived to benefit certain parties, but stranger things have happened, and both the Israeli and Egyptian intelligence services are quite capable of playing hardball. Recent terrorist incidents have been framed in political terms with little regard for evidence. Old intelligence hands require a “who, what, when, where, and why” to establish the bona fides of every reported terrorist action. Answers to those questions are, at the moment, lacking.