Sixteen Egyptian soldiers are dead after unidentified jihadists carried out a terrorist attack in the Sinai Peninsula, striking at the only institution standing in the way of an Islamist takeover of Egypt. The assailants were stopped as they entered Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood predictably accused Israeli intelligence of being responsible for the massacre, but all indications point to Al-Qaeda-type jihadists.
The operation began when about 35 terrorists traveling in three vehicles attacked an Egyptian military outpost, killing the 16 soldiers. They then went into Israel with bomb belts strapped to their waists and an armored car carrying about half a ton of explosives. The Israelis, who received a tip devoid of any actionable details over the weekend, launched three strikes, destroying the vehicle and six or seven terrorists. The rest escaped. It is thought that the terrorists wanted to kidnap an Israeli soldier.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas condemned the attacks, with Egyptian President Morsi declaring three days of mourning. Palestinians living in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip are paying a heavy price. The Israelis were forced to close the only access route to Gaza, the Egyptians had to close the Rafah crossing point and Hamas closed down the underground tunnels used for smuggling.
Egyptian officials think the terrorists worked with colleagues in the Gaza Strip, though Hamas is not believed to have had a hand in these attacks. In June, an Israeli soldier was killed by terrorists operating in the Sinai. A group calling themselves “Magles Shoura al-Mujahaddin”said the attack was in honor of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al-Qaeda.
Sunday’s attack is being compared toone that took place on August 18 that killed eight Israelis. The U.S. believes Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula carried it out with help from the Popular Resistance Committees based in Gaza and Jaish al-Islam, another Al-Qaeda affiliate. Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula declared its four goals after the attack took place: To institute Sharia Law in the Sinai Peninsula, force an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, cause Egypt to wage war on Israel and to end the unfair treatment of the Bedouins.
If Al-Qaeda is responsible, the timing is embarrassing for Hamas. On Thursday, Hamas released Abu al-Waleed al-Maqdissi after imprisoning him for 17 months. He was the leader of Tawhid and Jihad, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. He first joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003.
Egypt is openly talking about an impending military offensive into the Sinai Peninsula, bringing the focus back to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptians argue that it must be modified because a military presence is needed in Sinai to combat terrorism. The Israelis point out that it was already adjusted two years ago so that Egypt could deploy seven more battalions to the area and it has yet to do so.
For the moment, the common outrage over the attacks appears to be something bringing Israel and Egypt closer together but if the attacks ignite a public disagreement over the peace treaty, then the attacks will be the opening to a serious deterioration in the relationship.
Egypt and Al-Qaeda will have a bloody fight once the military enters Sinai but it must keep its eyes on an organization called the Islamic Group. Its former leader, Omar Abdel-Rahman, more commonly known as the “Blind Sheikh,” is living in a U.S. prison because of his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The Islamic Group is loudly demanding that he be released. Egyptian President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are echoing the demand. Al-Rahman’s son is threatening to have his father’s supporters surround the U.S. embassy in Cairo and hold the employees hostage. If the U.S. refuses to release him, there is a strong possibility that the Islamic Group will take violent action.
Those who understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a genuinely “moderate”force must be prepared for what will happen next. The group and its supporters will use any action against Sinai-based terrorists as proof that the Muslim Brotherhood is a friend of the West that we just have some disagreements with. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was publicly praising President Morsi the week before these attacks.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch, Hamas, may not bear operational responsibility for what happened on Sunday but their Islamist ideology is what inspired it. Their fight with Al-Qaeda is based on tactics, not a difference in goals.
The Muslim Brotherhood follows a smarter, more pragmatic and patient doctrine it calls “gradualism.” Al-Qaeda just wants to destroy anything standing in its way, even if that means killing fellow Muslims. Both are anti-Western and both share the same long-term objectives. If the Sinai-based terrorists had killed Israelis, civilian or military, the Brotherhood wouldn’t have uttered a word of displeasure.
It’ll be a positive development if the Egyptian military roots out the Al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai Peninsula but we don’t know who will control the military years from now. The Islamists may succeed in asserting control over it. Letting the Egyptian military station itself in the Sinai in large numbers may sound like a good idea now, but the Egyptian military of today may not be the Egyptian military of tomorrow.