CAIRO—Hundreds of miles away from the political turmoil here, amid the vast desert expanses bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, there is a ticking time bomb which grows more dangerous by the day.
Western officials believe that foreign jihadis, possibly from Yemen and Somalia, are among the several hundred extremists operating close to the Israeli border in Egypt’s Sinai desert, according to a senior diplomatic source who spoke to the Daily Beast recently.
Cairo-based diplomats believe that dozens of radicals from across the Middle East have flocked to the barren wilderness, and are taking up the banner of local extremists.
Egypt’s military, which is prevented from having any presence near the Israeli border due to the 1979 peace treaty signed by both countries, is in many areas effectively outgunned by the well-armed jihadis and does not want to risk a full-blown conflagration, the source added.
“They do not have the capability,” he said. “Sources in the military have privately admitted to me that they are currently outgunned.”
In recent years the North Sinai desert has become a hot bed for Islamic militants. The situation has grown more acute due to a dangerous cocktail of local political grievances, smuggling networks into the neighboring Gaza Strip, and the looming presence of Israel on the nearby border.
Following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, state power evaporated from much of the area and local jihadis began to make their presence felt more keenly.
In June last year scores of militiamen drove into the centre of El-Arish, the administrative capital of North Sinai, attacking its police station and briefly capturing the town.
Then in August the same year, a fire fight erupted between Israeli and Egyptian troops after jihadis launched a cross-border raid close to the Red Sea town of Taba.
The most serious incident happened this summer, when gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers during an attack on a border post and then breached Israel’s security fence using a stolen armored car.
The raid – which British officials believe was carried out by home grown Egyptian radicals, possibly working alongside militants from Gaza – triggered a very public response from Mohamed Morsi, who declared he was dispatching tanks and troops to the Sinai in order quell the militant threat.
Billed as the biggest military operation in the area since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, there were nevertheless doubts about how harsh the supposed crackdown had actually been.
Some analysts believe it was a carefully orchestrated spin operation. The military was desperate to show the Egyptian public it was responding to the attacks, they claim, but bucked a genuine confrontation due to its reluctance to take on the tangled web of interests in the Sinai.
“Sinai is a problem for Egypt,” said the diplomatic source. “But so would be a sustained campaign to address the problems there, which would bring the added risk of failure.”
The Daily Beast approached Major General Gaber el-Arabi, the Secretary General of the North Sinai governate, to comment on the claims, but he said he was unable to discuss security issues.
But Abdel Rahman al-Shorbagy, a Sinai-based official from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, said he thought it was “impossible” that foreign jihadis were operating in the area.
“The North Sinai has strong tribal networks,” he said. “It would be hard for any strangers of foreigners to take shelter there because everybody would know about it.”
However it is well known that some Bedouin Arabs – who for decades suffered under-development, job discrimination and persecution at the hands of Hosni Mubarak’s regime – have established close links with both Egyptian jihadi groups and armed factions inside the Gaza Strip.
Many are bound up in an underground economy of gun-running and smuggling through the hundreds of tunnels leading into Gaza.
The tunnels originally served as a rare source of lucrative employment in the region, but now form the backbone of a complex relationship involving Hamas, Sinai smugglers and Egyptian radicals flying the flag of fundamentalist Islam.
Other Bedouin Arabs, still suspicious of central government, have warmed to the separatist message being promulgated by radical Salafi sheikhs in the region. It is a relationship which in part has been fired by a shared experience of torture and persecution at the hands of the former regime.
Khaled Saad, an opposition politician from El Arish, told the Daily Beast he was worried about the growing strength of fundamentalist Islam in the area. “We cannot just ignore them, as they are dangerous,” he said.
“They have weapons, and they believe that using them is the only way to liberate Egypt from people who do not agree with them.
“They want Egypt to become an Islamic country like Afghanistan, and they think they can take us back 1500 years.”
He claimed that the army was perfectly capable of dealing with the problem, but that it was refusing to do so because of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – the organization which gave birth to Hamas.
“The problem is that the army doesn’t want to finish the job because the president is in with the religious radicals,” he said. “He is one of them.”
This assessment was denied outright by al-Shorbagy. “The Muslim Brotherhood is against violence,” he said. “We are not involved with any armed Islamic groups.”
Other Western officials also hold the view that the army is reluctant or incapable of dealing with Islamic militancy in the Sinai, but view it as an issue of logistics.
One of the main problems of a full blown operation would be the subsequent publicity. With as many as 1,500 armed jihadis taking shelter among the local population, a truly effective campaign could be bloody and highly destructive.
The complexity of the issue is also daunting, and any solution would have to deal with the potential fallout over the region’s multi-layered network of interests