Though sidelined by pan-Arab democracy drives, al-Qaeda may have found a firmer foothold in the lawless Egyptian Sinai where it poses a threat to Israel, experts say.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s counter-terrorism czar told an Israeli-hosted security conference this week Egypt’s political entropy had helped reinforce and arm Sinai radicals whose presence is tacitly acknowledged by Egyptian intelligence.
“Many jihadists were released from jail ... bring(ing) into the area many years of experience, knowledge, courage and people who actually do not have anything to lose,” the official, Nitzan Nuriel, said in reference to prison breakouts that accompanied the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.
He said such militants were flush with weaponry looted in civil war-ravaged countries such as Libya and Yemen.
“If you want to buy, today, a mortar or a machinegun or even a MANPAD (anti-aircraft missile), all you need is a few dollars and you get it,” Nuriel said. “The level of the threat is much more dramatic than it was a year ago.”
The assessment was echoed by analysts gathered at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center event, though they emphasized the overall sapping of al-Qaeda’s popularity among Arabs.
“The common wisdom is that al-Qaeda has been weakened by the Arab Spring when you make a global assessment, on an ideological basis,” said Lorenzo Vidino of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. “But I would have to concur that on a tactical level they have benefited in places like the Sinai.”
Visiting Egypt last month, Vidino said, he had heard “virtually the same assessment from the remnants of the Egyptian security forces, which are concerned with their own security.”
Frank Van Beuningen, counter-terrorism chief for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, said he largely agreed with Israel’s concern.
Arab pro-democracy movements had augured non-violent reform but also left “spaces where there is no government authority and it is pretty hard for us to know what is going on,” he said.
Previously, Israel’s al-Qaeda worries focused on marginal support for the group in the Gaza Strip, whose Hamas rulers are also hostile to the Jewish state but have cracked down on the more radical Islamists to shore up truces and internal order.
Though al-Qaeda blew up an Israeli-owned hotel and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2002, its leader at the time, Osama bin Laden, generally placed the United States and its Western and Arab allies higher on his hit list.
Nuriel predicted that with Bin Laden’s killing by U.S. commandos and succession by Egyptian-born cleric Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda would try to rally more attacks on Israel.
Israel blamed Gazan gunmen for an Aug. 18 attack which killed eight of its citizens along the Egyptian border, saying they came via Sinai and may have been helped by jihadists there.
Five Egyptian troops were killed as Israeli forces repelled the infiltrators, triggering demonstrations in Cairo during which Israel’s embassy was overrun.
Evacuated to Israel, Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon told local TV those mobs were fuelled by the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Egyptian political movement which is sympathetic to Hamas and has become more assertive under post-Mubarak military rule.
Nuriel said regimes like Egypt's “don’t have now the attention to deal with all the jihadist problems because they have to protect themselves.”
Yet Alistair Millar, director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation in Washington, warned against “conflating the gains that could possibly be made by the Brotherhood in Egypt with the sense that al-Qaeda is somehow involved. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda hate each other.”
Israel “may have a case” in arguing al-Qaeda was stronger in Sinai, Millar said, “but to suggest the Arab Spring would create any uptick in popular support for al-Qaeda is a step too far.”
The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord required Sinai to be demilitarized, but Netanyahu has agreed to requests from Cairo to deploy fresh forces as part of security sweeps there.
Israel is beefing up its own border garrisons and, under orders issued on Tuesday by Netanyahu, plans to complete a fence along the 266-mile (165-mile) frontier by next September.
“International cooperation can reduce the threat a little bit (but) at the end of the day you need strong response forces along the borders,” Nuriel said.