The Egyptian army is negotiating deals with 13 Sinai Bedouin tribal chiefs for setting up militias to counter alien militant activity in their territories across the peninsula and in the Israeli border region. On offer are new weapons, training and monthly paychecks for undertaking this task. Sinai has a Bedouin population of approximately 100,000 from which, DEBKAfile's military sources estimate, a fighting force of 8,000-10,000 can potentially be mustered.
Those sources note that Egypt has turned to the doctrine US Gen. David Petraeus, now CIA Director, applied in Iraq 2006 and 2007 to enlist Iraq's Sunni tribal leaders in the western region to the war on al Qaeda by providing them with arms, training and regular payments.
The Egyptian army has so far managed to recruit two tribal leaders.
Abu Ahmed, chief of the Sawarkas, agreed this week to organize his men into a fighting force for securing the Egyptian-Israeli border and safeguarding it against terrorist and smuggling incursions from Sinai. Sawarka territory starts at the Philadelphi strip bordering southern Gaza and runs west along the Mediterranean coast of northern Sinai.
The Tiyaha tribe was also persuaded to join the Egyptian effort to purge Sinai of terrorists and smugglers. It controls a large square of land between the Nitzana border crossing south of the Gaza Strip up to central Sinai. This tribe and the Sawarka command the routes from southern Gaza into southern Sinai. They are partners in the arms smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip and control the criminal networks smuggling people, drugs and arms into Israel.
Now Cairo wants them to turn to preventing a repeat of the Aug. 18 cross-border terrorist raid by gunmen who killed 8 Israelis on the Eilat highway. DEBKAfile's military sources report that the 15-20 terrorists who carried out the Eilat highway raid spent days in Tiyaha territory before they attacked Israel.
On the principle that it takes one to catch one, the Egyptians hope to transform these Bedouin tribes from smugglers and abettors of terrorists into guardians of the law and strong arms for stamping out the criminal networks and cross-border terrorist violence in Sinai.
Their effort may face its first test quite soon: Israel has solid intelligence of a Palestinian Jihad Islami group, which is sponsored by Tehran, heading from Gaza into Sinai for more cross-border raids into Israel. If the new arrangement stands up, one or both of the new Bedouin militias will intercept the attackers in time and hand them over to the Egyptian authorities.
Movement is also reported in another part of northern Sinai, where the US military contingent of the Multinational Force, posted there for the past three decades to secure the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, has been ordered to enhance its training to meet the situation declining in Sinai since the Egyptian revolution.
An MFO official said the nearly 900 American soldiers were being instructed in force and facility protection amid Al Qaida-aligned attacks in Egypt.
"We have probably added more combat drills," US Army Col. Eric Evans said. "We're doing more stuff with weapons and movements. We added a little more intensity."
Our military sources report, however, that the claims in the Cairo media of an Egyptian plan to demolish the Hamas smuggling tunnels were nothing more than disinformation to mask its ongoing campaign of recruitment among Bedouin tribes. If it takes off, Israel and its military will be confronted with three fundamental issues:
1. Since the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipe was first blown up on February 5, Israel has allowed around 3,000 soldiers to enter Sinai, over and above the quota of limited to lightly-armed border police permitted by military clauses of their peace treaty.
Nonetheless, Saturday, Aug. 27, Egyptian officials made a point of contradicting an assertion by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak the day before that Israel had already agreed to the transfer of several thousands Egyptian troops to Sinai to tighten security there. Cairo is clearly not satisfied and wants to augment their numbers. Israel will have to make up its mind whether to allow Egypt pumping more troops into Sinai. Even if its consent is ad hoc, once there, the extra Egyptian troops are unlikely to leave.
2. For the first time in Sinai history, the competent authorities will be handing security to its indigenous inhabitants.
Since most of the Sinai tribes have kinship ties with Bedouins on the Israeli side of the border, Israel might have to decide to set up a corresponding Bedouin militia for guard duty on its side. The framework is there. The Israeli army already has a Bedouin reconnaissance battalion operating in the Gaza sector.
3. Both Egypt and Israel have had enough experience of Sinai Bedouin tribes in at least three wars not to trust their shifting loyalties. Unlike the Iraqi Sunni tribes of al Anbar, their obligations to paymasters whom they regard as aliens or interlopers are interchangeable according to circumstances and the size of imbursement on offer. So if the smugglers, al Qaeda ore Palestinian terrorist organizations top the Egyptian offer, the tribal chiefs won't say no. Cairo's plan for combating Sinai terror by proxy is therefore pretty flimsy.