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Report: Rising al-Qaeda presence in Sinai Peninsula is a growing threat to Egypt and Israel

Al Qaeda training manual found in Afghanistan in 2001. Photo courtesy of the the US Department of Defense.

A new Henry Jackson Society report – Terror in the Sinai – provides the first statistical analysis of its kind on the evolution of the terrorist threat in the Sinai since the Egyptian revolution three years ago.

Terror in the Sinai, launched today by the Henry Jackson Society, examines the terrorist threat coming from the Sinai Peninsula. The report assesses the presence of al-Qaeda and its ideology in the Sinai, emerging ties between Salafi-jihadist groups and local Bedouins, and the successes and failures of the Egyptian army’s recent military efforts in confronting the threat. It finds strong indications of an influx of foreign fighters and weapons into the Sinai and a threat against the Egyptian state and Israel that is more co-ordinated and sophisticated than ever before.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Rate of attacks: Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power in mid-2013 sparked a fifteen-fold increase in militant attacks. During the first three months of 2014, the rate of attacks has risen six-fold in comparison to the same period last year.
  • Type of attacks: Attacks launched from the Sinai are becoming more organized and sophisticated, with groups increasingly using the peninsula as a launchpad to target the Egyptian mainland. Groups are also increasingly favouring al-Qaeda-style methods: so far in 2014, bombings have overtaken shootings as the most common type of attack (rising from 18% in 2013 to 54% during the first three months of 2014).
  • Location of Attacks: 20% of attacks attributed to groups active in the Sinai have taken place in Cairo this year (up from 2% in 2013). As 2014 progresses, bomb attacks are increasingly likely to take place in Cairo and other major cities in Egypt.
  • Al-Qaeda’s presence in the Sinai: Militant groups in the Sinai appear to be increasingly adopting al-Qaeda ideology. There are also strong indications that al-Qaeda central (AQ), Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are attempting to make inroads into the peninsula.
  • Foreign fighters: Individuals from Yemen, Somalia, the Sudan, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan are reported to have travelled to the Sinai in order to join armed groups.
  • Arms: Weapons are believed to be falling into the hands of militant groups in the Sinai through smuggling routes from Libya, the Sudan, the Gaza Strip and Iran. Moreover, Hamas reportedly operates warehouses, rocket-production facilities and factories in the peninsula.
  • Threat to Israel: Since 2010, groups operating in the peninsula have targeted Israel at least 19 times, including a group named the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, which stated that its obligation from God is to attack Jews as “unbelievers”. Additionally, ongoing attacks to the natural-gas pipeline connecting Israel to Egypt have cost an estimated $166 million.
  • Bedouin-jihadist ties: The government’s deteriorating relationship with the Sinai’s Bedouin tribes appears to be increasing the overlap between Bedouin youths and Salafi-jihadist ideology and activity.
  • Military action: The Egyptian army’s recent military operations in the Sinai – despite its claims of successful arrests and killings of militants – do not appear to have effectively curbed the terrorist threat in the peninsula.

Oren Kessler, Henry Jackson Society Research Fellow and co-author of the report, said:

“Salafi-jihadist militant groups – some of whom appear to include fighters from abroad – are increasingly using the peninsula as a key base of operations. With Egypt’s elections approachingattacks against political and military figures on the Egyptian mainland – as well as cross-border strikes against Israel – pose a greater threat than ever before.”

Mohannad Sabry, a Cairo-based journalist, said:

“Terror in the Sinai shows that Egypt’s terrorist threat is not going away anytime soon, rather, it is poised to grow far beyond its current state. Thoughtful and nuanced analysis is therefore urgently needed for decision-makers to effectively confront and contain the ongoing crisis. This report is an invaluable contribution to that effort.”

Terror in the Sinai [full page]

For a larger view click on the infographic.

‘Terror in the Sinai’ is available to download here.

HJS’s work on terrorism and Egypt includes:

  • Terrorism and Islamism in the MENA Region, March 2014, available here
  • The Presumption of Innocence: Difficulties in Bringing Suspected Terrorists to Trial, Robin Simcox, December 2013, available here
  • Al-Qaeda’s Global Footprint: An Assessment of Al-Qaeda’s Strength Today, Robin Simcox, September 2013, available here
  • Al-Qaeda in the United States – A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses, February 2013, Emily Dyer and Robin Simcox, available here

RELATED STORY: Judicial Watch: DHS may have special “hands off” terrorist list​

Al Qaeda Looted Syria’s Bio-Warfare Laboratories?

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Dr. Jill Bellamy van Allst , NATO Bio-warfare Expert.

There is a  troubling briefing  by the UK-based Henry Jackson Society (HJS), co-authored by  Dr. Jill Bellamy van Allst, NATO Bio-warfare Expert and Oliver Guitta , Director of Research , reported by Adam Kredo  in the Washington Free Beacon ,  “Al Qaeda-Aligned Groups in Syria May Have Access to Biological Pathogens”.  Our New English Review interview  with Dr. Bellamy Van Aalst on Syria’s  Bio-warfare program  in 2007 was reprised to heightened interest in 2013, “The Dangers of Syria’s Bio-Warfare Complex Should Assad Fall”.  More recent concerns have emerged  about the possible use of drones  by terrorist group Hezbollah as a delivery platform for possible BW attacks against Israel.

The Washington Free Beacon cited  this warning by HJS authors Dr. Bellamy Van Aaalst and Guitta:

 The problem with bio-weapons, unlike chemical or nuclear, is the quality and weaponization for dispersal that counts, not the quantity. You do not need a stockpile and you do not need sophisticated delivery methods, in fact, that is no longer optimal. Bio-weapons are silent, and determining that an attack has occurred can be challenging.

The HJS authors found:

  • Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Al Nusrah, may have acquired access to biological pathogens or weaponized agents, either of which would pose a threat to the international community.
  • The Syrian civil war has left sections of the bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure destroyed, and looting of labs has been observed, which could indicate that Assad is losing command and control over one of the most dangerous classes of weapons remaining in his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal.
  • Should al Qaeda acquire sections of Assad’s BW program, it has the competence and expertise to weaponize and deploy agents.
  • Documents found in Afghanistan, in 2001, ostensibly revealed that al-Qaeda was doing research on using botulinum toxin to kill 2,000 people.
  • On January 6, 2009 a number of terrorists died of plague in an  al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) training camps in Tizi Ouzou. Reportedly, 50 terrorists had been diagnosed with the plague, 40 of whom  died.
  • Intelligence sources suggest that in several countries, notably Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Mauritania, AQ is training operatives in biological and chemical weapons and has successfully inserted terrorists into Europe through application processes for refugee status.

The Washington Free Beacon noted:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is believed to have ample biological weapons stores in addition to the chemical weapons currently being confiscated by Western nations. These caches likely include various neurotoxins and deadly viruses, according to U.S. intelligence estimates and other experts.

“A very credible source has confirmed he saw, near Aleppo, a looted pharmaceutical laboratory, which was probably a cover for a biological weapons production site,” Guitta and van Aalst revealed in a research brief published by the Henry Jackson Society.

“Syria’s biological warfare programs are latent, highly compartmentalized, and dual use, run under both legitimate and clandestine programs, laboratories, institutes, and facilities,” the report states. “The fact that this looting took place in the Aleppo area where the rebellion—and in particular Al Nusrah—is very strong tends to confirm that AQ may potentially be in possession of biological agents.”

Al Qaeda’s interest in acquiring biological weapons is cited by the HJS authors:

Recent reports from Syria suggest that al Qaeda’s top leaders have taken an interest in Assad’s bio-weapons research facilities.

Al Qaeda’s primary biological weapon expert, Yazid Sufaat, was arrested in Malaysia. “His arrest is all the more concerning given that the [United Nations] has allowed the Assad regime to maintain its [bio-weapons] program,” according to the report.

Suffaat is a graduate of California State University, Sacramento, where he received a degree in biology, according to Guitta and van Aalst.

“In 1993, Sufaat established Green Laboratory Medicine, a pathology lab where he tried to weaponize anthrax on behalf of al Qaeda,” according to the report. “Sufaat had direct ties to Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Al Mihdhar, both of whom were on Flight AA 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.”

Note these comments from Texas Senator John Cornyn and National Intelligence Director Clapper:

Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) warned last month that Syria’s unsecured bio-weapons pose a great threat to the region.

U.S. intelligence agencies have reported that Assad possesses various biological weapons and has an active research program underway.

“Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in an unclassified April 2013 report.

“Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery,” Clapper concluded.

Question is will the  Obama National Security Council brief the President on this compelling threat? Given the array of problems in Eastern Europe and the Middle East would this credible threat get the attention it deserves? Perhaps, it is the Israelis who have been keeping a watch on Syrian terror weapons. They may already be on the case regarding bio-weapons filtering into the hands of  Terrorist groups, whether al Qaeda, Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

RELATED STORY: Al Qaeda Magazine Calls For Car Bombings In U.S., New York – CBS New York

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

Iran: On Carrots, Sticks and Knives By Oren Kessler

Three months ago, I took a leap into the unknown. After eight years as a journalist and analyst in Tel Aviv, I moved to London to establish a Centre for the New Middle East at the Henry Jackson Society. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to tell Wembley from Wimbledon, Norwood from Norbury or Gospel Oak from Honor or Burnt or Royal. Then two weeks ago, I found myself in Westminster (that’s about halfway between Gospel Oak and Royal Oak, if you’re counting), trying to coax a dozen sceptical members of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to get serious about Iran.

I knew it would be a tough crowd. In the previous session, Jack Straw, the ex-foreign secretary and head of the Iran-Britain Parliamentary Friendship Group, dismissed the notion that the Islamic Republic is a threat to world peace. He lamented that the US foreign policy establishment – egged on by AIPAC and Bush-era neocons – had a “pervasive vulgarity” that required a “demon.” That demon was once the Russians, he said, and now it’s the poor Persians. “It is not about foreign policy analysis,” he said, “they have a psycho-political need.”

Having just visited Tehran, Straw assured the esteemed panel that the Iranian capital feels much like Madrid – you know, aside from the religious police and bodies hanging from cranes – and that if the mullahs twist the wording of nuclear agreements it’s because “they have a long tradition of poetry … ambiguity is part of their popular culture.”

A week before, Sir Robert Cooper, an LSE lecturer and former top UK and EU diplomat, assured the esteemed panel that Iranians are “people of enormous charm.” Committee chair Sir Richard Ottaway responded with the obvious conclusion: the problem may well lie in Washington rather than Tehran.

I don’t doubt Iranians are charming (I wouldn’t know – as a dual American-Israeli citizen, my travel options in Iran are rather circumscribed). I do, however, doubt that it’s insufficient appreciation of that charm that has poisoned the well of Iran’s relations with the world. Quite the contrary: the West is so charmed by Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani – his ready smile, passable English and Glasgow PhD – that it overlooks the inconvenient truth that Iran’s execution rate, already the world’s highest, has shot up since his election last year. Or that “election” means something a bit different in the Islamic Republic, where the mullahs barred 99% of candidates from running for president. Or that homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran, or that women’s testimony in court is, by law, worth half that of a man.

But I digress. What the committee really wanted to know was whether Israel would attack. “Isn’t it right,” MP John Baron asked me, “that ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan had said an Israeli strike would be ‘stupid’?”

“He did,” I replied, before completing the rest of Dagan’s remark: the Jewish state should not attack, he had said, until and unless the proverbial knife is up against its neck. “If, metaphorically speaking, the knife were against Israel’s neck,” I said, “I think Israel would strike, and I think it would have a legitimate reason to.”

Is the knife now up to Israel’s neck? Perhaps; perhaps not. But when going up against Iran, it’s vital to remember that this very dangerous game is played not only with carrots and sticks, but with knives as well.

EDITORS NOTE: Oren Kessler is a research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society.