Vacationing Israelis warned of ‘immediate’ terror threat in Sinai
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Vacationing Israelis warned of ‘immediate’ terror threat in Sinai

As travel season set to kick off, Counter-Terrorism Bureau says Islamic State poses largest threat around the world, including close to home, in Turkey and Europe

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative photo of a resort in the Sinai Peninsula, October 16, 2016. (Johanna Geron/FLASH90)
Illustrative photo of a resort in the Sinai Peninsula, October 16, 2016. (Johanna Geron/FLASH90)

Israel intensified its warning against citizens traveling to the Sinai Peninsula on Monday for fear of an imminent terror attack by the Islamic State, with the knowledge that thousands will spurn their advisory and travel to the area in the coming months.

The annual travel warning from the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau came two weeks ahead of the Passover holiday, marking the unofficial start of the travel season.

Eitan Ben-David, the head of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, told reporters that the Sinai, which has seen a years-long, bloody conflict between an Islamic State affiliate and Egyptian forces, already bears his agency’s highest level warning, indicating a concrete threat.

Ben-David said that in light of the threat in Sinai, Israel “has considered the possibility of closing the Taba border with Egypt, but right now we have no intention of doing so.”

Israelis were also warned away from Turkey, which was given the agency’s second-highest warning, in light of the terror attacks in Istanbul and other Turkish cities in recent months, including one in January in which an Israeli teenager was killed and another in March 2016 in which three Israelis were killed.

Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. (AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL)
Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. (AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL)

Israel instructed its citizens to refrain from traveling to both of those locations and to leave, if they are already there.

Once a popular vacation destination for Israelis and others, the restive Sinai has been wracked by terror attacks carried out by a local Islamic State affiliate known as Sinai Province, including the downing of a Russian passenger jet in 2015.

Despite intensive efforts by Egyptian forces to battle the group, it has rebounded and grown brazen in attacks on Egyptian troops and civilians, including Coptic Christians, in recent months, Ben-David said.

“There is a serious and current threat of terror attacks being carried out against tourists, notably Israelis, in the immediate future,” the travel advisory said.

While Hezbollah has been blamed for attacks against Israelis abroad that caused dozens of the deaths over the years, the Iran proxy does not currently present as immediate a threat as Islamic State, according to Ben-David.

The threat from Islamic State, also known by its Arabic nickname Daesh, comes from both its own directed attacks and the so-called “lone wolves” who gain inspiration from the terrorist group and carry out attacks on its behalf, without actual support from the organization.

Islamic State’s battlefield recent losses in Iraq and Syria may push its foreign fighters to flee back to their home countries, which represent a softer target for the terrorist group’s attacks, he said, warning Israelis traveling to safer locales like Western Europe to also remain vigilant.

“As long as Islamic State is in distress, it will try to carry out attacks around the world — against the Christians, the Crusaders and maybe the Jews,” Ben-David said.

In the Sinai, officials are hoping harsher language will help dissuade the Israelis who have continued to visit the area. Those intrepid tourists have claimed that Islamic State is powerful only in the northern peninsula and that their travel is coordinated ahead of time with known drivers and hoteliers.

Illustrative: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)
Illustrative: An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)

“We work on this all year round. We are watching what’s happening. We have no interest in crying wolf. We believe in what we say. The threat is grave,” Ben-David said, in the bureau’s office in Tel Aviv’s Kirya military base.

Elsewhere, threats have remained relatively unchanged since the bureau last offered its annual advisory ahead of last year’s Passover, which is both itself a week of increased travel and the start of the summer tourism season. Despite Islamic State taking on a central place in the worldwide threat profile, the bureau warned that Hamas and Hezbollah are still capable of carrying out attacks.

Jordan and the rest of Egypt, besides the Sinai, carry the bureau’s third-highest level advisory, in light of their proximity to Syria and Sinai, respectively.

Morocco, meanwhile, holds the CTB’s fourth-highest warning.

Areas of Africa controlled by Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, and the al-Shabab terrorist group are also under an “immediate” terror warning, as are other high-conflict areas, like Kashmir, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines.

Ben-David said his organization worked with local communities to find where large Passover events would be celebrated around the world, in order to be able to respond quickly should the need arise.

He encouraged Israelis to remain aware of their surroundings while abroad, specifically in the United States, Russia, France, Belgium, Germany and India.

In December, Israel put in place a travel advisory on India, citing a “concrete threat,” but that was rescinded the following week.

Emergency services at the scene outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, following a terrorist attack. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP).
Emergency services at the scene outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, following a terrorist attack. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP).

Though there is no travel warning for Western Europe, the bureau said Israelis should be particularly alert in popular tourist destinations, like sports arenas, cultural centers, houses of worship and holiday markets.

Ben-David cited last week’s terror attack in London as the type of attack — a car-ramming followed by a stabbing — that is liable to occur.

He also pointed to a truck-ramming attack in a Berlin Christmas market last year, as an example of what his bureau is concerned may be committed in the coming weeks, which will see both the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter holidays. An Israeli woman was killed in that attack.

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