At the end of 2017, the Israeli prosecution indicted Tasnin and Rahma al-Assad, two 19-year-old Israeli women from the Beduin community of Lakiya in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The two sisters are accused of pledging allegiance to the Islamic State organization (ISIS) and of planning to detonate bombs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and at a college in the city.
Israeli Arabs – who total about 1.8 million – are mostly Muslims and comprise 21 percent of the Israeli population. Many of them are torn between being Israeli citizens and their Palestinian identity and attachment to their brethren across Israel’s borders.
They are equal in the eyes of the law and enjoy full Israeli citizens’ rights, including the right to vote and be elected to the Knesset. But in most fields of their daily life – education, welfare, health and infrastructure – and in terms of budget allocations by the state, they are subject to discrimination.
Despite their sense of being a deprived minority, the number of Israeli Arabs involved in acts of terrorism on behalf Palestinian terror groups since Israel’s independence almost 70 years ago has been very low.
This trend holds true with the low number of Israeli Arabs who have joined ISIS. Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 and the establishment in 2014 of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, only 60 Israeli Arabs are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria, usually via Turkeyb to join the Jihadi battles. In 2017, with the collapse of ISIS, not a single Israeli joined the group. According to Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Bet – which is in charge of counterterrorism and counterespionage – out of the 60 Israelis who joined ISIS, 13 were killed in fighting while two dozen returned to Israel and were arrested, indicted and sent for various prison terms. The rest, around 20 individuals, are still at large in various parts of the region and elsewhere.
As for the al-Assad sisters, according to their own admissions, they conspired to get Israeli passports and to escape to Sinai after they accomplished their terrorist missions.
It is no coincidence that they chose Sinai as their favored destination. The 60,000 square-kilometer desert, controlled by Egypt, is turning into the “next thing” in the dreams, fantasies and plots of the defeated disciples of Islamic State.
According to information obtained by Israel’s intelligence agencies and passed on to the cabinet, hundreds of jihad warriors have arrived in Sinai. They came from all corners of the world and are a significant contribution to the already thousand-strong force of the local branch of ISIS, known as “Sinai District.”
The new arrivals are the “usual suspects” from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Central Asia, Africa and the far east. They have similar traits to those who have characterized the “foreign legions” of ISIS around the world: young, socially and culturally frustrated and sexually deprived; some have a criminal record, and they are driven by brain-washed ideology loaded with extremist Islamic religiosity.
And they have one important additional skill: they gained a great deal of military experience in the killing fields of Syria and Iraq.
After the defeats of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and their local affiliates in Nigeria, the Philippines and several other places, tens of thousands of foreign disenchanted warriors and terrorists returned from Syria and Iraq to their native countries and became a headache to the local security services. Many are disappointed on discovering how their dreams have been shattered.
But some are still ardent supporters of the radical and cruel ideology that calls for a continuation of the struggle. The concern in their native states, be it in Europe, the US or elsewhere, is that some of them will channel their religious zeal and military skills to execute terrorist attacks locally. But others, for various reasons, decided not to go home – and Sinai (together with places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen) serves as a magnet for those seeking both “action” and Islamic fraternity.
The attraction to Sinai is enhanced by a few factors. First, there is a war still being waged there. Even without the injection of new blood, the fighters of the Sinai District area still manage to engage in fierce battles with the Egyptian army and its security forces.
Another reason is the inability of the Egyptian government led by Gen. Abed Fattah el-Sisi to defeat them and impose his rule on the region. In other words, Sinai – especially its northern part on the Mediterranean, from El Arish all the way to Gaza, is still basically a non-governable, wild area.
Its topography – high mountains, hidden bays – and sympathetic nomads who thrive on smuggling drugs, weapons, cigarettes and you name it, make it even harder for the Egyptian regime to govern and conduct an effective war. In addition, there are weapons of all sorts in abundance, smuggled in from Libya and Somalia, which are easy to purchase.
The new volunteers take advantage of the relative easy access to the vast peninsula either by landing illegally by boat in secluded and isolated bays on the Red Sea or by entering Egypt legally on regular flights.
Before the new-old jihadists began to flood Sinai, Israeli intelligence believed that in recent years, the Egyptian army, through a systematic and intense campaign, had managed to decrease the scope of ISIS terror attacks. The worst attack in Egypt’s history occurred when some 40 ISIS gunmen entered the Bir al-Abed mosque in North Sinai during Friday prayers on November 24, 2017, and opened fire, killing 305 worshipers and wounding at least 100 others.
The vicious attack led to the downfall in January 2018 of Gen. Khaled Fawzi, the director of the General Intelligence Directorate (commonly called Mukhabarat), who became a scapegoat for the fiasco and was personally blamed for the failure to detect the plan. He has now been replaced by el-Sisi’s confidant, Gen. Abbas Kamel.
In recent weeks, the Israeli intelligence assessment has changed. The growing concern is that the human infusion into Sinai will strengthen the actual capabilities and the morale of the terrorists and will give them a tailwind to increase their attacks.
Experts have already noticed that the Sinai terrorists have improved their military know-how. In the past they looked like a bunch of bandits wearing rags and operating in small groups with no coordination. Today they are dressed in military uniforms, carry communication equipment, and operate in larger units with surprising skill in maneuvering and the use of firepower. Their weaponry is also better. They have more anti- tank missiles, which were used in a daring attack on the Egyptian defense minister's helicopter who visited northern Sinai.
Luckily they missed him, but they hit the helicopter and killed its two crewmen.
Their propaganda is also becoming more and more similar to that of ISIS in its heyday with well-staged public executions.
THERE ARE two reasons for the improved military skills of the Sinai District group. One is the influx of experienced foreign warriors. The other is that Hamas, the Islamic movement based in Gaza, has been in contact with the Sinai terrorists.
Despite their repeated denials aimed at placating the Egyptian authorities, Hamas officers have trained the Sinai terrorists and treated their wounded in Gaza hospitals. In return, the Sinai group helps Hamas smuggle weapons, especially rockets, into Gaza.
However, due to systematic efforts by the Egyptian security forces to destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, it’s becoming more and more difficult.
The Hamas-Sinai District alliance is the major reason that Israel is so concerned about the new developments in the peninsula.
According to foreign reports, Israeli intelligence agencies are helping Egyptian security forces in their fight against the terrorists. It has also been reported that occasionally, the Israel Air Force is called in to target terrorist hideouts from the air. The New York Times, for example, reported recently that Israel had conducted more than 100 air strikes in northern Sinai for more than two years in an effort to root out ISIS terrorists, with Sisi’s approval. But the energy, resources and religious passion of the Sinai District group are still being funneled to fight the hated regime in Cairo.
Despite their rhetoric, ISIS in Sinai has rarely turned its weapons against Israel. The number of incidents over the years – rockets, shelling and direct assaults on Israeli military positions – has been few. Nevertheless, the potential that one day they will begin to fight against Israel, as well, should not be ruled out. Israeli intelligence is now adding to that possibility one more factor: due to the geographical proximity, young Israeli Arabs may be also tempted to join the war in Sinai, just like the two al-Assad sisters.