As the Middle East continues to be rocked by instability and the old regional order crumbles, Israeli security forces are preparing for an increased al-Qaeda presence along the country’s borders. The past decade has shown that the al-Qaeda network thrives in failed states, setting down roots in areas where central governments no longer exercise a clear monopoly of arms or jurisdiction. From Pakistan to Iraq to Mali, adherents of the global jihadi movement are seeking a safe haven to set up training camps, plot terror attacks, and spread their fundamentalist ideology.
In Israel’s neighborhood, at least two local regions are prime al-Qaeda growth areas: Syria, which is in the midst of a full-blown civil war, and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, a partially lawless desert province where local Bedouin tribes enjoy more power than Egyptian security forces.
In both areas, all indications suggest that al-Qaeda-affiliated forces are setting up shop.
In Syria, jihadi fighters are pouring in from neighboring countries such as Iraq (thereby reversing the traffic flow of al-Qaeda fighters a decade ago). They are mixing with local recruits to form terror cells in Syria; these have imported Iraqi-style roadside bombings on the Syrian army and vehicle bomb attacks on Syrian government installations.
The Free Syrian Army routinely denies the presence of al-Qaeda elements in Syria; admitting otherwise would serve the propaganda efforts of the embattled Assad regime.
The Syrian regime is keen on presenting all Syrian rebels as fanatical jihadis. Despite the politicized accusations by the regime and denials by the rebels, al-Qaeda is gradually establishing itself in Syria; the Israel Defense Force assumes that sooner or later the jihadis will turn their sights on Israel.
The IDF’s Northern command recently took journalists on a tour of the Golan Heights and presented a few of the preparations underway by the Israeli military to ensure readiness for the new threat.
Despite Syria’s hostility to Israel and its rhetorical and logistical support for the largest terrorist organization in the Middle East, Hizbullah, the border between Syria and Israel has been free of hostile action since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Now, however, as Damascus loses sovereignty and jihadis gain room to maneuver in Syria, this may change. Possible threats include bomb and shooting attacks on the border, and the possibility of rocket fire into northern Israel.
Meanwhile, in the south, al-Qaeda’s presence in Sinai is already well-established. Last month, global jihadi terrorists attacked an Israeli Ministry of Defense border construction crew erecting a barrier on the border between Egypt and Israel. The attack claimed the life of a crew member. The terror cell was quickly met by an IDF unit, which shot dead two members, as other terrorists retreated into the sand dunes on the Egyptian side of the border.
The terror cell, exploiting weapons that are hidden in caches in Sinai, used a combination of explosives, a rocket-propelled grenade, and machine guns. Some of the weapons were, and are, entering the area from Libya.
A Sinai-based al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, saying it was behind the incident, released a video on YouTube (since removed); it featured several masked men standing in front of a global jihad flag. Two of them identified themselves as Saudi and Egyptian nationals.
“To the Jews, enemies of God, know you infidels that what is coming is different from what came until now,” one of the masked men said.
The presence of global jihadi fighters in Sinai is made more complex by the network’s having members operating in the neighboring Gaza Strip, ruled by the Hamas regime.
It is easy to imagine how one attack can set off a wider conflict, as occurred in June, after the border attack, when the Israel Air Force bombed an al-Qaeda mastermind in Gaza. In response, Hamas fired over 160 rockets into southern Israel, a reaction that prompted further Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets.
Hamas, for its part, has no problem with al-Qaeda launching attacks on Israel from Sinai, but it does have a problem with al-Qaeda challenging its rule in Gaza. In 2009, Hamas ruthlessly enforced its jurisdiction in Gaza, sending hundreds of gunmen to the south of the Strip to put down an al-Qaeda inspired movement that challenged Hamas rule .