Egyptian control of the vast Sinai Peninsula is slipping fast. After gaining virtual sway over the north and its main roads, Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists are moving ahead with an ambitious plan to devour a broad stretch of land on the eastern flank of central Sinai.
Achieving this objective would bring the jihadists into close proximity with Egyptian beach resorts along the Gulf of Aqaba coast, especially its celebrated tourist resort, Sharm El-Sheikh.
It would also bring them up to another section of the Egyptian-Israeli border.
This assessment is by military sources of Israel's intelligence news service, DEBKAfile.
These days, Egyptian forces move around the northern and eastern regions of the peninsula in heavily-armed convoys with tanks accompanied by air and helicopter support.
Still, yesterday, on 9 January, a suicide bomber killed 13 Egyptian soldiers by blowing up a stolen garbage truck packed with explosives. The truck was positioned outside a police station in the northern Sinai center of El Arish. The blast was followed by an RPG ground attack on the checkpoint outside the building.
It was a well-planned operation.
Notably, ISIS manages to inflict terror on Egyptian security forces despite close military and intelligence cooperation between Egypt, the US and Israel, all of which is intended to secure northern Sinai in order to keep it out of ISIS control.
The ad-hoc coalition of effort between Egypt, the US and Israel is failing to achieve this objective.
Egyptian forces have their backs to the wall after failing to cement their authority in northern Sinai. They have even failed to carve out “sterile zones” for keeping the Islamists at arms length.
It is a dismal performance by Egypt's 2nd Army, the division responsible for security in northern Sinai. And this in spite of the fact that it has been beefed up with tanks, air and helicopter reinforcements.
With northern Sinai virtually under their jackboots, ISIS is engaged in hard bargaining with local Bedouin tribes, primarily the chiefs of the Tiyaha tribal federation, to advance its plans to seize another large chunk of the peninsula.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources reveal that the ISIS team of negotiators is led by senior officers recently relocated from Iraq and Syria, who traveled through Jordan to Sinai and have taken command of the organization’s operations.
On the table is a proposal for the Tiyaha to permit ISIS to using its territory for launching strikes against the Egyptian army in the south (see attached map).
Their target here, say our military sources, would be the Egyptian 3rd Army which is responsible for all of central Sinai, from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Suez Canal.
Unlike the 2nd Army in the north, the Third is thinly scattered in disorganized spots across a large area and would be easy prey for terrorist attacks.
If the Bedouin chiefs agree to open up their lands to ISIS, the terrorists will be free to sabotage the Egyptian army’s main highways links between Egypt proper to Sinai.
The Islamic State’s creeping advance is directly tied to Palestinian terrorist operations in Israel and Jordanian counterterrorism security.
Against this backdrop, the Palestinian truck attack Sunday, 8 January, on a group of IDF soldiers and officer cadets must be considered relevant.
Four IDF officers and officer cadets in their early 20s were killed. Thirteen more were injured under the wheels of a large truck driven by a Jerusalem Palestinian at the local Haas Promenade.
In recent months, the terrorist who carried out the murderous attack, Fadi al Qunbar, became an ardent adherent of the Islamic State. Fadi, 28, was a resident of the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Muqabar. His newly radical ways went unnoticed by Israeli anti-terror intelligence services.
Our sources note that the process of Islamist self-radicalization has begun spreading among Palestinian millennials, ages 18 to 35. This often happens through ties with Jordanian millennials.
Until now, this process has received little public attention in Israel.
Its first manifestations occurred last year. On 1 January, 2016, three Israelis were murdered by a terrorist and seven injured on Dizengoff Rd., Tel Aviv’s "Main Street."
Another manifestation of ISIS-linked self-radicalization occurred on 8 June. In another terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, four Israelis died and thirteen more were injured. This attack happened in the open air Sarona market.
The perpetrators of both attacks declared they were acting for ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Jerusalem attack Sunday is part of the same pattern.
Because this is a significantly edited version of the original article published by DEBKAfile at http://debka.com/article/25879/With-big-gains-in-N-Sinai-ISIS-drives-south, Brian Schrauger, Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Journal, is listed as a co-author of this report.