Working Together to Mitigate the Sinai Threat

In the early days of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, the nationwide collapse of the police unleashed in Sinai a volatile mix of disgruntled Bedouin, opportunistic smugglers, and ambitious Salafi-jihadis. In August of that year, the latter carried out a complex cross-border attack against Israeli civilians and soldiers. They killed eight Israelis.  More worrisome, the attack and the Israeli response seriously strained Egyptian-Israeli relations at the time.

Despite political turmoil in Egypt, Sinai security will continue to be a US priority because of its effect on Israeli security, regional stability as a whole, and the opportunity for al-Qaeda to take advantage of a security vacuum in the isolated peninsula. For that reason, even while the US government decided to suspend some aid to Egypt on October 9, 2013, cooperation on Sinai security provides an opportunity for the United States to stay involved and focus its relationship with the Egyptian military on mutual threats and interests despite displeasure on other fronts. Although the aid suspension involves a hold-up of large military systems the administration is likely to gain congressional support for a continued focus on funding border security and counterterrorism programs in Egypt.

Since 2011, Sinai has become more unstable—as has Egypt, generally—and the threat of cross-border incidents has grown. At the same time, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty has held. In terms of security and intelligence cooperation, the bilateral Israeli-Egyptian relationship is strong.

While efforts by Salafi-jihadis to attack Israel from, and to attack Egyptian police and military forces in, Sinai will continue, that threat can be mitigated. A strengthened security relationship between unlikely partners—Egypt, Israel and Hamas—would be mutually beneficial and allow the sides to combine their assets to counter shared threats while minimizing the risks of international blowback. Advanced Israeli intelligence assets can provide early warnings of active terror plots and smuggling operations to Egyptian security authorities, and main operations would be conducted by the Egyptians. Where relevant, Egyptians may share information with Hamas authorities when threats are active on the Gaza-side of the border. For this to succeed, Israeli decision-makers need to trust that their Egyptian counterparts have the will and ability to counter the threat.

This is where the United States can be an effective partner in this trilateral relationship. US aid can provide the proper tools, and the US military can provide the proper training, to give the Egyptian military and police the confidence to take on these threats in Sinai, which have had negative impacts on Egyptian sovereignty and which will continue to grow if unaddressed. Of course, there are political costs for each party in such an arrangement. Hamas has historically played a double-game: at times loosening its grip on Gaza-based Salafi-jihadis, who criticize Hamas for maintaining calm with the enemy. In addition to the lack of trust Israel has in Hamas’s ability to protect its interests is the limitation placed on Israel by its own longstanding policy to isolate Gaza’s population in an effort to pressure its Hamas rulers. Meanwhile, Egypt needs to balance the requirement of protecting its own national security interests in Sinai with the Egyptian public’s demand that Egypt not support Israeli efforts to isolate Gaza.

Despite these challenges, countering the Salafi-jihadi threat in Sinai is an interest shared by Egypt, Israel, and Hamas. It is an interest shared by the United States as well.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst and author of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center analysis paper “Sinai Security: Opportunities for Unlikely Cooperation Among Egypt, Israel, and Hamas.” Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold

Image: Photo: Mosaab El-Shamy