Attacks in Israel and New Militant Opportunities in Egypt
August 19, 2011
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A series of coordinated attacks occurred Thursday along Israel’s border with Egypt. While each attack was relatively small, the incidents indicate some degree of coordination among the attackers. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak attributed the attacks to elements emanating from the Gaza Strip, while Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tactical reports stated that the attacks had been launched from across Israel’s border with Egypt along the Sinai peninsula. No one has yet claimed responsibility.
Israel has plenty of experience in dealing with threats from militants in Gaza. In response, Israel often conducts preemptive as well as retaliatory airstrikes using real-time intelligence. In addition, whenever things appear to be getting out of control, the IDF conducts a major ground offensive.
Attacks inside Israel have become a rare occurrence. Weakened capability and shifting strategic imperatives have caused Hamas and other militant groups to largely refrain from such attacks. Most attacks usually consist of the firing of rockets from Gaza, a practice Hamas has an interest in both limiting as well as calibrating to enhance its control over the Strip.
In light of recent unrest in the Arab world and the new political and security reality in Egypt, these latest attacks in Israel potentially represent a new kind of threat — one posed by transnational jihadists who have long wanted to undermine Egypt without operational success. It is quite possible that al Qaeda is trying to exploit the post-Mubarak political environment to mobilize its Sinai- and Gaza-based assets in order to create an Egyptian-Israeli crisis that can (potentially) undermine Cairo’s stability.
Egypt After Mubarak
Under the police state run by ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt successfully kept political Islamists restrained, neutralizing the threat from jihadist groups. The unrest that broke out in the Arab world earlier this year has altered the domestic political reality in Egypt. Mubarak’s fall from power in the wake of popular agitation and the Egyptian military regime’s obligated engagement in political reforms have created a new environment — one in which autocratic measures have become largely obsolete.
Egypt’s rolling back of the police state and subsequent political reforms have made it difficult to maintain domestic security and keep militants under control. Indeed, militants are already taking advantage of the political opening. They have stepped up their operations, as evidenced by attacks against energy infrastructure and other targets in the Sinai Peninsula.
The new era of Egyptian multiparty politics has also allowed a variety of Islamist actors to emerge as legitimate political entities. At the same time, Egyptian national sentiment is emerging as a major factor in the foreign policymaking process. This change alone constitutes a threat to Israel’s national security, though it is a more of a long-term issue.
The rise of different types of Islamist actors (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Sufists, among others) as legitimate political entities who pursue constitutional means to come to power makes it difficult for jihadists to directly threaten the stability of the Egyptian regime. With even Salafists and former jihadist groups such as Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al-Jihad embracing the political mainstream, the jihadists will have a hard time gaining support for an armed insurrection against the Egyptian state. Realizing that they are not able to directly confront the Egyptian state (despite the Arab unrest), the jihadists are trying to indirectly undermine the regime by exploiting the Israeli-Gaza situation and the renewed militancy in the Sinai.
A New Threat To Israel?
Even before today’s attacks, the Israelis responded to increasing attacks in the Sinai by allowing Cairo to deploy an additional 1,000 troops to the peninsula. That concession indicated that Israel is likely skeptical of the Egyptian military’s ability to effectively deal with this problem, considering current political and security circumstances. Cairo is under a lot of stress domestically and regionally. Egypt is in the early stages of trying to manage political and militant opposition in a tense political climate and it is unable to maintain internal security as effectively as it once did.
Israel, therefore, will likely see today’s attacks as a new kind of threat. The Israeli leadership realizes that the problem is no longer strictly confined to Gaza but has now spread to Egypt itself. However, Israel doesn’t have any good way to control the situation unfolding within the borders of its Arab neighbor. That said, Israeli officials have already begun pointing fingers at the deteriorating security situation in Egypt, a response which likely going to cause tensions between Jerusalem and Cairo — exactly what the jihadists hope to achieve.
The latest video statement from al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he speaks of an “intellectual” effort in addition to the armed one, is noteworthy. Al-Zawahiri’s comments are part of al Qaeda’s response to the so-called “Arab Spring” — a development in which the jihadists have largely been marginalized. Al-Zawahiri has long been frustrated by the fact that many former jihadists in Egypt (his home country) have renounced violence, attacking al Qaeda and him personally.
For decades, the al Qaeda leader has longed to be capable of undermining the Egyptian state, and now the Arab unrest provides an opportunity (albeit not without challenges of its own). Al-Zawahiri’s status as al Qaeda chief after the death of Osama bin Laden boosts the viability of this endeavor. In this new role, he is more or less free to steer the movement toward his preferred direction. His ascension to the top of the jihadist hierarchy also signals a rise of Egyptians (who have long held a disproportionate amount of influence) within the global jihadist network.
The result is that al Qaeda can be expected to focus heavily on the Egyptian-Gaza-Israeli fault line. This fixation will not only complicate matters for Israel and its efforts to deal with the Gaza Strip, it could also begin to unravel the Egyptian-Israeli relationship that has existed since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords.