Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Sinai Peninsula has become a hotbed of radicalized activity. Many indigenous Bedouin, who have long been disenchanted by the Egyptian government, have turned to smuggling as a lucrative financial endeavor. The system of tunnels, created to transport illicit goods, have also served as for radicalized individuals and groups to enter the region. The desert terrain, largely uninhabited, provides hidden shelter among road-less paths and desert caves. This combination results in a prime opportunity for mujahedeen to build bases from which to carry out organized crimes and terrorist activities throughout the Maghreb and into the Sahel regions.
Impact of Bedouin Disenfranchisement
Since ancient times, the Egyptian Sinai has been home to several nomadic Bedouin tribes. During the Six-Day war in 1967, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula, providing job opportunities for Bedouin, particularly in the tourist industry. The Bedouin had become accustomed to a cash economy and material wealth during Israeli occupation. Following the end of the occupation in 1982, the Cairo-based government perceived the Bedouin as collaborators with the Israel to destabilize Egypt. Consequently, the Bedouin have been perceived as second-class citizens, facing human rights hardships and severe economic blows.
Twenty percent of Bedouin in the Sinai are denied Egyptian citizenship. They cannot join the police or military, or study in police or military universities. Bedouin tribesmen cannot hold government positions or form political parties, nor can they own land, for fear they would re-sell it to Israelis. Employment opportunities in the Sinai are preferentially given to non-Bedouin Egyptians, and corporate developments have created boundaries that impact the nomadic tribes’ ability to travel throughout their historic territories. Finally, Bedouin tribesmen are often blamed for violence in the region, held without cause or evidence by Egyptian Police. These factors generate great animosity against the Egyptian government; outcries have been met with meager financial assistance and empty promises.
In order to retain wealth and material goods, members of some tribes have turned smuggling as a lucrative opportunity to generate income. Since the 1990s, smuggling rings have expanded to include items of higher value, including drugs, weapons, cars, and people (kidnap for ransom). Concurrently, Bedouin traffickers have enlarged their networks, with weaponry becoming the new expression of wealth.
Smuggling in the Sinai
It is important to note that not all members of tribes have resorted to smuggling, rather, certain members of specific tribes. The dominant tribes involved in smuggling on the Sinai Peninsula are the Sawarka, Tihaya, and Tarabin tribes, which have traditional boundaries bordering Israel and/or the Gaza Strip. Connections also exist between Bedouin Rashaida of Eritrea and Sudan, who predominantly engage in human trafficking, and the Tuareg tribes of Libya, who transfer weaponry throughout the Maghreb. Bedouin tribes do not have a sense of national loyalty—only to tribe— nor do they ascribe to an ideology that prevents them from dealing with particular groups, even if they are deemed dangerous or radical, as long as they can afford the price. Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Egypt and Israel wrote, “…terrorists, both from Gaza and reportedly al-Qaeda, have used the territory to smuggle arms and plan operations.”
Heading west, tribes transfer goods and materials through the Maghreb and Sahel Regions, taking advantage of porous borders and lax security. From the south, tribes use a system that goes from Kassala, Sudan to the Egyptian border, then north into Sinai. Toward the east, Bedouin smugglers use an intricate system of tunnels to deliver materials through Gaza and beyond. At Sinai’s eastern border, commonly used routes are the Heth and Philadelphi routes, which go between Gaza from Sinai. Tunnel systems that are known by Egyptian and Israeli law enforcement have been bombed or flooded. However, to keep their trading systems open, tribesmen will pay up to $100,000 for the creation of new tunnels.
In addition to smuggling, some tribesmen charge for extensive knowledge of safe and desolated areas within the Peninsula, where smugglers or radicals entering the region can hide while fleeing from law enforcement.
Hideout for Radicalized Groups
Increased lawlessness in the Sinai results directly from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Bedouins were among the first to ignore national curfews, and rising vehemently against Egyptian police. In February 2011, the police left the Sinai Peninsula, and returned in August 2011 with limited presence. In that time, Al Qaeda inspired militants penetrated the region, and continue to increase presence. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the militant faction of Hamas, as well as Al Qaeda inspired networks, are known to be operating quasi-military training camps in the Sinai. Due to this threat, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) received permission to send 3,500 military troops into the demilitarized zone, yet the small number of troops is unable to secure the vast, unfamiliar region.
Increased Radical Activity
This week, Egypt’s interior ministry told police in the Sinai Peninsula to raise a state of emergency, after obtaining intelligence that jihadist fighters might attack their forces. Last August, fifteen Egyptian policemen were killed in an assault on a police station bordering Egypt and Israel. The militants seized two military vehicles and attempted to storm the border.
In early January, Egyptian authorities issued a security alert for the Sinai as intelligence services received information about potential attacks by extremist groups in the Sinai. On 15 February, the authorities announced the seizure of two tons of explosives headed to the Sinai from Cairo, followed by the discovery of a weapons cache in Al-Arish two days later. The seized weapons include 21 anti-aircraft shells, six anti-tank mines and an anti-aircraft gun. The same day, one ton of explosives was found in a car headed from Cairo toward the Sinai. On 27 February, Egyptian security forces confiscated 60 antitank missiles south of Cairo that were being transported in two pickup trucks from Libya. And on 5 March, a cache of weaponry, including antitank mines, was seized in el Arish
Egyptian President Mohamed Mosri has pledged to get a grip on security in Egypt but as he struggles to assert control over an entrenched security establishment, this appears to be another empty promise. Morsi administration and Egyptian security forces are hindered by several factors, including poor resources and coordination, and conflicting views on counter-smuggling and counterterrorism strategies. A failure to cultivate Bedouin allegiance and intelligence will also decrease Egyptian security forces ability to identify lairs of suspected jihadists.