Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Tora Bora in Sinai?

PV Vivekanand

It would seem that Israel is steadily building up a case of Al Qaeda preparing to launch anti-Israeli attacks from across the border in Egypt's Sinai. If "leaked" Israeli "intelligence reports" are to be believed then Sinai is being turned into a new Tora Bora of Afghanistan by Al Qaeda, with disgruntled Egyptian bedouins and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip making up the bulk of its supporters in what Israel calls "Al Qaeda Sinai" and "Al Qaeda Palestine." A good faith report on the Israeli claims would read like this:

ISRAELI intelligence reports indicate that Al Qaeda has set up a formidable network in the area and is getting ready to strike at Israeli targets as well as at Jordan and Egypt.
According to intelligence reports, Al Qaeda has set up makeshift camps in the rough terrain and inaccessible peaks of the strategic desert peninsula like the group did in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains during the US-led war there. They are supported in Sinai by rebellious bedouin and Palestinian fighters, and some accounts say that Al Qaeda is better fortified in Sinai than it was in Tora Bora.
Egyptian security forces have failed to pinpoint the Al Qaeda camps let alone dislodge them from the moountain peaks of Egypt, particularly in the area called Jabal Hillal.
Israeli intelligence reports have been warning of Al Qaeda efforts to set up an infrastructure in Sinai area since last October's bomb blasts at Taba's Hilton Hotel followed by another spate of blasts at Egypt's Sharm Al Sheikh resort. Taba is in Egypt, but the area is open to Israelis who used to throng here to frequent the casinos there.
According to Israeli intelligence reports, Al Qaeda now control sroughly one-fifth of Sinai total area (61,000 square kilometres). "Egyptian forces of law and order have learned not to venture into these bastions or into the areas commanded by age-old smuggler clans who currently collaborate with Al Qaeda," says one report. "This leaves about half of the forbidding desert peninsula inaccessible to Egyptian security forces. Today, they can only claim to control the main roads routes fringing the vast desert expanse: from Ras Sudeir down to Sharm Al Sheikh along the Suez Canal and Suez Gulf shores; from the Suez Canal east to El Arish along the Mediterranean shore and from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort center north along the Gulf of Aqaba to Taba and the Israeli port of Eilat (see attached map).
"The spectacular, biblical landscape conceals terrorist bomb traps and roadside devices. Gunmen armed with RPG and anti-tank weapons lurk behind huge rocks in wait for any Egyptian police or security unit daring to step off a main road into one of the dry valleys dissecting the forbidding peaks."
"The paths leading up to peaks – some as tall as 7,500 feet - are barricaded by huge rocks under which explosive snares are concealed. Attempts to move the rocks would set off explosions and start an avalanche. Interspersed among the natural barriers are bomb traps and anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The caves perforating the slopes are firing positions - some armed with mortars and heavy machine guns."
In view of such fortification, Egyptian securities forces have failed and retreated from their large-scale assaults on the suspected camps.
The only means to dislodge them is through a major aerial bombardment supported by precision landing of troops by helicopters.
However, there are several hurdles to such an assault, according to the Israeli analysis of the situation.
Egypt is not supposed to undertake any air force operations in the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. While Egypt could seek approval and co-ordination for an allout attack against Al Qaeda, the government of Hosni Mubarak is not seen ready to be the target for Muslim anger against it for for collaborating with the Jewish state against Al Qaeda, which is seen by many Arabs and Muslims as the symbol of their anti-Israeli struggle.
Another hurdle is Egypt's lack of information about the arsenal possessed by Al Qaeda, which is believed to have a fairly large number of anti-aircraft short-range missiles that could bring down helicopters.
According to Israeli intelligence, Al Qaeda’ has already set up several channels for smuggling fighters, supplies, arms and weapons into Sinai.
These routes exploit the peninsula’s exceptional geography to run between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew from there in August and September.
"That al Qaeda has established a presence in the Gaza Strip is no longer a matter of speculation," says the Israeli intelligence report. "Today, Israeli military intelligence AMAN and the Shin Beit are taking the new manifestation of Al Qaeda-Palestine as an offshoot of Al Qaeda-Sinai with the utmost seriousness.
According to the report, foreign fighters have been detected entering the Gaza Strip, welcomed and integrated in to the logistical infrastructures of Palestinian groups and elements of Hizballah, Hamas and Jihad Islami have been heading out of Gaza into Sinai to join Al Qaeda.

Now, why would Israel go the extent of highlighting such a scenario, which clearly questions the abilities of Egypt's security forces? Obviously, it does not want Egypt to have any particularly strong say in Palestinian security-linked issues, and the best way to do that is to show that Egyptian security forces are impotent against militant groups.
On the other hand, it is also possible that the Israeli-reported scenario is fairly accurate. Then that would raise the spectre of Al Qaeda hitting out at Israelis, "moderate" Palestinians, Jordanians and of course Egyptians.
At this point, we could only watch and see.