Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning Feb. 23 in response to the Feb. 21 arrest by Egyptian security forces of 23 Palestinians and Egyptians on suspicion of plotting a number of attacks aimed primarily at Israeli tourists in resorts in the southern Sinai Peninsula. The warning advised the estimated 500 Israeli tourists vacationing in Sinai to return to Israel. Because of the size of the alleged cell rounded up by the Egyptians and the possibility that two suicide bombers still could be at large, Israelis and all foreign tourists in southern Sinai should take the warnings seriously. Among the 23 arrestees was a young Palestinian with a suicide belt. The arrests sparked a manhunt by hundreds of Egyptian state-security forces and military intelligence personnel for two more Palestinians believed linked to the alleged plotters. According to Egyptian intelligence officials, the two men rented cars and headed south from the Israeli border, and are thought to be in possession of explosive belts.
Terrorist attacks in Sinai are by no means rare. Militants have attacked southern Sinai resorts three times in the past two and a half years — in Taba in October 2004, Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 and Dahab in April 2006. Most recently, a suicide bomber entered Israel from Sinai and killed three people Jan. 29 in the southern Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat. Since the Taba bombing, security warnings of attacks have been fairly accurate. Strong back-channel communication between Egyptian state security (al-Mukhabarat) and Israel's Mossad that persists despite whatever transpires publicly between Egypt and Israel most likely explains these reports' accuracy. The same day the Israelis reissued the current warning, Egyptian police uncovered a cache of approximately 1 ton of explosives in a warehouse near the Sinai town of Karm Salem. The discovery occurred during attempts to track down several Palestinian men who have sneaked into Sinai from the Gaza Strip via underground tunnels. Dozens of Palestinians, Egyptians and Bedouins have been detained for questioning. The warning and the discovery of the cache illustrate how Sinai is used as both a logistics hub and an operational theater for jihadist, Palestinian and local Bedouin militant groups. Militant groups operating in Sinai's remote expanses have various objectives. Those who wish to damage the Egyptian economy by harming its tourist industry might be succeeding. According to officials at the Taba border crossing, the number of Israeli tourists heading to Sinai has declined because of frequent alerts and warnings about militant attacks and kidnappings. Keeping a lid on militant activity in Sinai is very important for Cairo. The area often triggers frictions between Egypt and Israel after Israeli tourists come under attack or when weapons and explosives are smuggled from the peninsula into to the Palestinian territories. The Egyptians have sought to stamp out the militant problem in Sinai with crackdowns and security sweeps. But the area's rugged terrain and remoteness make securing Sinai difficult. The warnings from Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau should be taken seriously given the high quality of intelligence regarding Sinai collected and shared by both sides because of the region's importance to them. This vigilance has translated into accurate warnings about emerging threats. In the face of the present warning, security measures will be increased at sites that can be secured, such as larger hotels and resorts. This means militants might be compelled to hit softer targets, such as lower-end hotels and smaller resorts. Public gathering places are even more vulnerable. Though a hotel can more or less be locked down, the same level of protection cannot be applied to markets, beaches or boardwalks.