The Russian passenger plane that went down in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday has shined a spotlight on the rugged and lawless Egyptian region on the northern shore of the Red Sea, where terrorists from two continents gather and weapons of all kinds are bought and sold.
Weapons from small arms to shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles are bought and sold in clandestine auctions attended by shadowy buyers who arrive by caravan, according to regional sources. Plundered caches from Libya, Gaza-bound shipments from Iran and weaponry from a roster of bad actors exchange hands in the desert where Moses is believed to have wandered with the children of Israel for 40 years.
“The region is awash in weapons,” said Scott Stewart, the vice president for tactical analysis at the STRATFOR, a Texas-based global intelligence firm, noting everything from heavy weaponry and artillery rockets are trafficked through the area.
Much of the firepower ends up in the hands of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the terrorist group that emerged out of the 2011 revolution, then was driven into the Sinai when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power two years later. One year ago, a delegation from the group met with ISIS leaders and swore their allegiance.
“With their allegiance to ISIS, they are also invariably well-funded and have access to sophisticated weaponry.”
The deal, which led to the declaration of an ISIS Sinai Province, or Wilayat, strengthened both parties. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis had a new partner in its resistance to El-Sisi, and ISIS had a foothold in the key, West Virginia-sized region straddling the continents of Africa and Asia. The ISIS affiliate's attacks have so far been confined to the rugged peninsula called Arḍ ul-Fairūz or the “land of turquoise.” But an attack last year on an Egyptian Army barracks, a group leader vowed in a video message to El-Sisi, "We will be the sword that cuts off your neck and the bombs that destroy your kingdom and break your back."
Russia's entry into the Syrian civil war has been cited as a possible motivation for ISIS, which quickly took credit for downing the St. Petersburg-bound Metrojet plane carrying 224 vacationers home from the Sharm el-Sheikh beach resort. U.S. officials have ruled out the possibility of a missile strike at 31,000 feet, but a bomb remains a possibility, as does some type of malfunction.
“The Soldiers of the Khilafah were able to down a Russian plane over Wilayat Sayna,” the terror group said in a statement.
Most of the Sinai’s 1.4 million people inhabit the coastlines, but the terrorists, who also include groups with links to Al Qaeda, flourish in the interior, where an estimated 250,000 Bedouins live. Cairo lost control over much of Sinai after Hosni Mubarek was ousted as president by a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood-backed administration, said Tony Schiena, of MOSAIC, a private military and intelligence outfit based in the U.S. and London.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis continues to fight the Egyptian Army, while its new partners boast of their newly extended reach.
“Their attacks are precise and coordinated, using guerilla warfare tactics, including suicide bombers and other tactics and techniques learned from ISIS,” Schiena said. “With their allegiance to ISIS, they are also invariably well-funded and have access to sophisticated weaponry.”
Despite Egypt's efforts, much of the region remains ungovernable, according to James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at Heritage Foundation.
"The Sinai has become a key operating area for terrorists because it has become an “ungoverned space” where the authority of the Egyptian government has been undermined by rebellious Bedouin tribes who have controlled smuggling routes into and out of Gaza, Israel and Egypt," he said.
Terror attacks in the Sinai Peninsula occur about every five days, according to Veryan Khan, editorial director of Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. She said ISIS is increasingly bold, targeting villages near major cities with medium and heavy weaponry.
Relations between the Egyptian government and the Sinai population have been deteriorating due to a lack of involvement and investment from the government in the region, providing ISIS with a springboard to recruit and radicalize the population of the Sinai, Khan said. In addition, ISIS in the Sinai was able to kill two generals of the Egyptian Army during a widespread anti-terrorism campaign launched by the Egyptian government "Martyrs of Right" operation, giving a poor image of the Egyptian government, seen as unable to stem the terrorist problem in the Sinai, she said.