There were, it would seem, two goals to Sunday’s terror attack in Taba, one symbolic, one concrete.
The attack, which killed three South Korean tourists and an Egyptian bus driver, was carried out, apparently with a remote-control explosive device, only 100 yards from the border with Israel. The blast, as intended, reverberated across the territorial divide. It was a symbolic reminder to Israelis that the global jihad, once relegated to far flung corners of Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, has taken root in the heart of the Levant, half a day’s drive from the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“It is very hard for them to penetrate into Israel,” said Maj. (res.) Aviv Oreg, formerly the head of Al Qaeda and Global Jihad desk at the IDF’s military intelligence directorate. But for jihadist organizations in the Sinai Peninsula, this sort of attack is “very sufficient in order to pinpoint that Israel is their target in their aspirations.”
More concretely, it targeted tourists on Egyptian soil. Last year, in the wake of president Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and the ongoing attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland, tourist revenue in Egypt dropped by 41 percent. The $10 billion earned in 2012 dwindled to $5.9 billion in 2013, Reuters reported in January. This, the first attack against tourists since Morsi was pried from power, will further cut into the foreign cash flow. It will also push Egypt, and certainly the Sinai Peninsula, one more step in the direction of anarchy, the ecosystem in which terror thrives.
Oreg, who today heads Ceifit, a company that analyzes global jihad threats, suggested two possible perpetrators – the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis or Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, a group that was once based in Gaza, he said, but which was forced to operate in Sinai and to target Israel from there “because it is not convenient for Hamas.”
The group more likely responsible, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the most dominant jihadist group in the Sinai, “is very close to al-Qaeda,” Oreg said in a conference call with journalists Sunday evening. So much so that al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri has been heard, “in his own voice,” claiming Ansar Beit al-Maqdis attacks.
Although Oreg said that not a great deal is known about the terror organization’s “layout and infrastructure,” it is clear that it possesses a vast array of weapons. “They have everything,” he said, including thousands of mines that can be made into IEDs and advanced missiles that came from Libya after the fall of Muammar Ghaddafi. In late January, the group downed an Egyptian military helicopter, killing all five soldiers onboard. “Name whatever weapons you need, and you can find it in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.
In recent months, ever since Morsi’s ouster, cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian authorities “has been largely enhanced,” Oreg said, moving from the tactical and operational level to the intelligence realm. The Shin Bet, too, has been forced, over the course of the past two years, to realign itself in order to address the growing threats from the Sinai.
But, as Oreg noted, there is no foolproof defense and this attack, which may have been largely aimed against General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his supporters, will also deter some of the 1.8 million Christians who visit Israel annually, many of whom enter the country via the Sinai Peninsula.