Collapse in Libya, Yemen transforms Sinai into major arms market
TEL AVIV Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has turned into a huge weapons market.
Israeli and Western officials agreed that Al Qaida and Bedouins have smuggled numerous missiles and other weapons into Sinai. They said a range of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, could be acquired cheaply.
"If you want to buy today a mortar or a machine gun or even a MANPAD [man-portable, air defense system] all you need is a few dollars and you get it," Israeli government counter-insurgency adviser Nitzan Nuriel said.
Nuriel said weapons have flooded Sinai from neighboring Libya as well as Yemen. He said the arms have been used to establish an Al Qaida presence meant to attack Israeli and Western interests in the region.
"The level of the threat is much more dramatic than it was a year ago," Nuriel, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said.
Western officials agreed. They said Al Qaida has been bolstered by both Bedouins as well as hundreds of Islamist insurgents who escaped prison during the revolt against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
"The common wisdom is that Al Qaida has been weakened by the Arab Spring when you make a global assessment, on an ideological basis," Lorenzo Vidino, a researcher at Switzerland's Center for Security Studies, said. "But I would have to concur that on a tactical level they have benefited in places like the Sinai."
The officials, who attended a conference by Israel's Institute for Counter-Terrorism in September, said their assessment was shared by new military regime in Egypt. They said the Egyptian military was concerned over the power vacuum in Sinai amid the collapse of Mubarak's security forces.
"They left spaces where there is no government authority and it is pretty hard for us to know what is going on," Dutch Foreign Ministry counter-insurgency director Frank Van Beuningen said.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon asserted that Iran was helping the insurgency network in Sinai. Ya'alon said Teheran was preparing for the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and wanted to bolster other proxies in the region.
"Realizing that Assad's regime might not last for a long time they are already busy developing alternative channels to deliver arms to their allies," Ya'alon said. "They consider these surrogates not only as a tool for threatening Israel on a daily basis but also an integral component in their effort to deter Israel and the free world from taking harsher measures to make sure that they don't have the capability to develop nuclear weapons."
Israel has already approved an Egyptian plan to deploy thousands of soldiers, special forces as well as hundreds of main battle tanks in Sinai. But officials said Egypt has not shown the determination to eliminate Al Qaida and other insurgents.
"International cooperation can reduce the threat a little bit," Nuriel said. "At the end of the day you need strong response forces along the borders."