Assessing Risks in the Sinai

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
10 MINS READMay 11, 2006 | 03:19 GMT
An Egyptian security guard stands in front of a destroyed hotel at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after a bomb attack on July 23, 2005.

The Sinai is a vast, sparsely populated desert region, but as security risks go it has been quite busy of late. On Monday, the Israeli Anti-Terrorism Command warned Israeli citizens about an elevated risk of kidnappings on the Sinai coast; several similar warnings have been issued in recent months. Then, on Tuesday, Egyptian authorities said they had killed Nasser Khamis el-Mallahi, the head of Egypt's Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group, in a firefight outside the Sinai town of El Arish.

That news has been followed by claims that, with the death of el-Mallahi and the capture of his deputy, security forces have destroyed the Egyptian Tawhid wa al-Jihad organization. The claims are probably overblown. Though it is a grassroots jihadist organization that has not shown tremendous tactical sophistication, Tawhid wa al-Jihad has demonstrated surprising resilience. Since 2004, it has been the target of a massive and sustained government campaign that has resulted in the deaths or capture of scores of members and leaders. Nevertheless, it has managed to carry out two major strikes amid the crackdown. In fact, despite the government's claims of having annihilated the group, the security risks in the region could actually be said to be higher for the time being. The incentives for more attacks will come with the regional meeting of the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh in late May — bringing top government officials and business leaders to the city — and with upcoming trials for several suspected Tawhid wa al-Jihad members. It is far from clear that the group, which expended five suicide bombers in late April, actually has the capabilities to carry out another operation so soon, but the targets and timing for more strikes are noteworthy.

Under any circumstances, the group's history and the strategically significant location — with proximity both to Israel and to other centers of jihadist activity — would indicate that there will be still more attacks in the Sinai in the future.

Early Campaigns

The Egyptian Tawhid wa al-Jihad made an impressive entrance onto the world stage in October 2004, with a successful truck bombing at the Hilton Hotel in Taba. The group attempted to deploy two other vehicle-borne bombs in that attack but failed to deliver those to their assigned targets — a failure that perhaps stemmed from effective security measures. The attacks killed 34 people, 16 of them foreigners, and the majority of the casualties were at the Hilton. The Egyptian government came down hard on the suspects in the case, reportedly arresting hundreds of Bedouins. Human rights groups have claimed the government actually detained thousands of Bedouins, many of whom were allegedly tortured. Suspects placed on trial have made claims in court that they were tortured, and given the Egyptian government's treatment of suspected militants in the past, there likely is some merit to the allegations. Government security forces also have killed several Taba suspects in shootouts. Security forces failed to capture one of the suspects in the Taba case, Mohammed Ahmed Salah Felifel, who was being tried in absentia (with two other suspects who were in custody) when a second serious attack, at Sharm el-Sheikh, occurred in July 2005.

That was the most deadly of all the operations conducted by the Egyptian Tawhid wa al-Jihad to date. As in Taba, operatives used three bombs, though in this case only two were vehicle-borne; the third was a smaller device that was placed in a bag or parcel. And, as in Taba, only one of the devices was successfully delivered to its target — a truck bomb that detonated at the Ghazala Gardens hotel, the site of most of the casualties. The Sharm el-Sheikh attack resulted in 88 deaths, including 17 foreigners. The man Egyptian authorities have identified as the suicide bomber who drove the truck bomb into the hotel, Youssef Badran, reportedly had been arrested and then released during the investigation of the Taba attack. Egyptian authorities once again detained scores of people. There were more allegations of torture and of thousands detained. Suspected militants were again killed in shootouts with police — including Mohammed Ahmed Salah Felifel, the alleged the mastermind of the Sharm el-Sheikh attack, who was killed Aug. 1, 2005. The government announced the killings of other militants who were suspected of involvement following incidents in September and November 2005.

The jihadists reacted to the police pressure in August, with a series of roadside bomb attacks targeting authorities. The attacks killed at least two Egyptian police officers and wounded several others. One device, which detonated near El Arish, wounded two Canadian peacekeepers who were assigned to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO).

Dahab: A Shift in Tactics

The third attack attributed to Egyptian Tawhid wa al-Jihad came only recently, on April 24 in Dahab. That strike was similar to the attacks in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh, in that multiple suicide bombers were deployed at a tourist resort on the Sinai Peninsula. But there was a difference also: The perpetrators used smaller improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rather than larger vehicle-borne devices.

This shift in tactics matches a trend noted elsewhere, with militant groups using smaller bombs to circumvent security measures and get closer to their targets. The cell that carried out the strikes in Dahab also chose to strike softer targets in lieu of more heavily guarded hotels — where security had been ramped up following the Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh events. It is possible this shift, similar to others seen last year in Bali and in Amman, Jordan, was made because the group realized it had not been able to deploy two-thirds of its bombs successfully in the Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh strikes — though it is likely that the government's counterterrorism efforts also played a part. (In the sweeps since the Taba bombing, security forces have seized explosive material several times, and the government has set up checkpoints in the Sinai that would make transportation of a vehicle-borne bomb more difficult.) Despite the use of smaller devices, 24 people — six of them foreigners — were killed in the Dahab attacks. It is significant that the death toll was only 10 short of the number resulting from the Taba strikes, even though the group used only a fraction of the explosives in the later attack. In short, they are becoming more efficient and getting more bang for their buck.

Furthermore, the small-scale attack was an embarrassment for the Egyptian government — which had stepped up security measures after the earlier strikes — and inflicted further damage to the tourism industry, a highly significant sector of the Egyptian economy. The pattern of government crackdowns, of course, has continued, with massive roundups of suspects, arrests and killings — including that of el-Mallahi this week. And the militants have followed up with attacks of their own against Egyptian police and MFO personnel — only this time, using suicide operatives rather than roadside IEDs.

Tawhid wa al-Jihad is becoming more efficient and getting more bang for their buck.

Continuing Violence

Judging from the sweep of events and the tactical shift at Dahab, it is highly likely that the Sinai will be the scene of continued violence against Israelis and other foreigners. For one thing, the smaller, simpler IEDs like those used at Dahab are easy to produce and require far less logistical effort than the large vehicle-borne explosives used in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh. Scores of smaller devices can be constructed with the same amount of explosive used in a single car bomb. It is also easier to hide the manufacture of small IEDs and suicide vests than the construction of a vehicle bomb, and easier to conceal and transport the completed devices.

Moreover, as the history of Palestinian militant groups has shown, it is fairly easy to manufacture small but deadly devices — packed with shrapnel and perhaps delivered into the middle of a crowd by a human "smart bomb" — even when a group is under tremendous pressure. The corollary to that, of course, is that smaller devices are ineffective when deployed against hardened targets — meaning government facilities or other venues where stringent security measures are applied. Their best use, therefore, is against soft targets — like the crowds along the seaside promenade in Dahab. At this point, there is no indication that Tawhid wa al-Jihad has lost any of its desire or capacity to conduct operations over the long term, despite the hits it has taken in security crackdowns.

The timeline of events clearly demonstrates that the group possesses a mature and robust infrastructure in the Sinai, and it appears to have no problem recruiting committed suicide bombers. This is hardly surprising, however, given Egypt's history as the cradle of jihadist ideology and its tradition of jihadist activity. In the past, groups like Gamaah al-Islamiyah and the Tandheem al-Jihad have targeted its tourist industry specifically. Though the group seems capable of withstanding heavy Egyptian countermeasures, it does not appear to pose a strategic threat to the government of Egypt or the region at this time. In its attacks to date, Tawhid wa al-Jihad has not demonstrated an ability to take out hard targets, which should be considered a prerequisite for a credible strategic force.

In fact, they have avoided or aborted attacks against high-profile hotels in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh; successful strikes were carried out at hotels without access controls. In other words, they have — thus far — selected the low-hanging fruit. This in itself would indicate that Tawhid wa al-Jihad is part of the jihadist grassroots — or, if you will, "al Qaeda the movement," which is sympathetic to and inspired by al Qaeda's central leadership, but not under its direct command and control. Furthermore, without assistance and direction from the outside, it will take time for the group to develop an ability to strike hard targets or to pose more of a strategic threat. Given the degradation of the central al Qaeda group's strategic capabilities and network, that help is not likely to come from Osama bin Laden or his direct subordinates anytime soon. That does not rule out other sources of aid — including the notable possibility of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization in Iraq initially was called "Tawhid wal Jihad" before he swore allegiance to bin Laden. Al-Zarqawi is hungry for acclaim and is, in essence, competing with the al Qaeda central command for center stage in the jihadist realm. Geographically, he is also well-positioned to form links with the Egyptian group; Taba is only a few miles from Jordan, where al-Zarqawi's group has demonstrated a clear ability to carry out serious attacks.

If al-Zarqawi's organization runs out of room in Iraq, it is conceivable that some of his experienced operatives could make their way to the Sinai. If so, the game in that region would be changed completely. Al-Zarqawi's organization has shown an ability to strike hard targets, even when under immense pressure. We have seen no hard evidence linking al-Zarqawi to the Egyptian Tawhid wa al-Jihad other than the name, which is used by many different groups. But if al-Zarqawi should at some point bring the Egyptian node under his wing, it would be seen as a major territorial expansion for him — and as a blow to the core al Qaeda leadership.

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