Lieutenant General Magdy Shehata claims terrorists loyal to the Islamic State group receive backing from Israel.
Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during Egypt’s 2011 uprising, the Egyptian government has been battling a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. Under the leadership of Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian military has been deployed in huge numbers to counter this threat. The most prominent terrorist group, Sinai Province, has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, which has taken huge swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria since the Arab Spring.
However, according to some Egyptian analysts, Sinai Province and groups like it receive backing from foreign powers, including the US and Israel, who seek to use them as tools of foreign policy, changing regimes and capturing territory. Such actions, analysts claim, are part of a wider strategy to balkanize the Middle East, cutting it into smaller states that can be more easily manipulated for political, military and economic gain.
Among those putting forward this view is a retired Egyptian army officer, Lieutenant General Magdy Shehata. As a special-forces officer in Egypt’s elite Thunderbolt force, Shehata served behind enemy lines during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. He went on to establish Kuwait’s own Thunderbolt force in response to the 1990 invasion by Iraq, and later helped found Egypt’s 777 counter-terrorism unit. Shehata was later appointed Egypt’s military attaché to Oman, and now works as a private security consultant based in Cairo.
In December 2015, Shehata told Hungarian journalist Sándor Jászberényi about the origins of Islamist insurgent groups in Sinai, claiming that their operations are facilitated by foreign powers including Israel. The former special-forces officer places the appearance of Sinai Province in the context of a long history of terrorist groups created and deployed to fight foreign wars, from the battle against Soviet power in Afghanistan through Chechnya, the Balkans and now Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt.
Sándor Jászberényi: Recently, Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai in Arabic) – the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group – credited itself with blowing up a Russian passenger jet over Sinai. Foreign security services later confirmed this. For the past few years, the same group has been fighting a low-level insurgency with the Egyptian military in Sinai. What is the current state of that insurgency?
Magdy Shehata: A major military operation is taking place in north-east Sinai. In order to understand the conflict, you have to see the differences between North and South Sinai. Living in South Sinai, there are mostly friendly Bedouin tribes who are not interested in an armed conflict with the government. They are involved in the tourism sector and receive huge incomes through it.
The biggest source of income for the Bedouins of [north-east] Sinai was smuggling through the tunnel system of Rafah to the Gaza Strip. They were earning money by smuggling building materials, medicines, luxury products like cigarettes, weapons and obviously people into Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006.
President Mubarak was already aware of the situation in [the border town of] Rafah, but he didn’t do anything against it, kept it as a bargaining chip, when it came to negotiating with Hamas, in order to be able to pressure them.
During [the reign of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed] Morsi, the situation worsened, the borders almost ceased to exist. There were so many operating tunnels. Anyone could come into Egypt without being checked.
This is what was left for the [current President] Sisi government, and they had to deal with it somehow. They have closed down all the tunnels and re-established the national borders along the Gaza Strip. The result was the end of all incomes from smuggling, and fights immediately broke out.
Geographically it’s easy to wage a guerrilla war in the north; you can hide in the desert or just leave the country’s borders, by land or sea.
SJ: In the ongoing conflict, Israel seems like a major strategic ally of Egypt. They have approved the mobilization of armored units and Apache helicopters along the borders, which is actually forbidden by the Camp David Accords.
MS: Indeed, there are some communications between the governments. They coordinate on some issues. I wouldn’t say, though, that the relationship is improving. Although Israel did agree to the mobilization of the Egyptian army along the border, it still doesn’t do anything to secure its borders.
A huge business is going on the Egyptian-Israeli borders as well. The Israelis make huge profits from the Ethiopian-Sudanese refugees, which are entering the country through this route. Not only the Bedouin, but ordinary Israeli locals are getting huge amounts of money from the smuggling of refugees, and the Israeli state doesn’t do anything against the illegal migration.
The terrorist groups of the Sinai can take advantage of this, merging with the migrants in order to leave Egypt when it gets too hot for them here.
SJ: The biggest terrorist group in the Sinai is the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which swore allegiance to Islamic State and changed its name to Sinai Province. Who are they?
MS: I don’t think they were necessarily started as Islamist terrorists. You don’t have to have any kind of ideology to be a terrorist. Mostly, it’s simple people that become involved in terrorist actions, starting it as a business. Even Islamic State recruited with the chance of a better life and huge benefits in the beginning – easy money is always a good motivation.
The local people badly need money; they are uneducated – this can be exploited. These people are brainwashed with the proper ideology, and different countries, organizations, armies arm them.
I hope it is obvious to you as well, that the weaponry these terrorist groups possess, the sources of income they have, must come from somewhere. No terrorist group can exist without serious sponsorship.
The militants of the Sinai are provided with arms and money, not just from Libya, but from countries along the Mediterranean Sea and Israel.
SJ: Why would Israel support the terrorist groups in the Sinai?
MS: If you apply the simple question “Who benefits?” to the armed conflicts of the Middle East, the first to spring to mind is Israel.
Let’s focus first on the Sinai conflict. It’s obvious that the root of this conflict is the Gaza Strip. Israel, even during the Egyptian-Israeli wars, had the vision of a Palestinian State in the Sinai Peninsula. They wanted to get rid of the Gaza Strip since the beginning.
They even offered President Mubarak to take control of the Gaza Strip, an offer he unfortunately turned down at that time. If we were smarter back them, we could have taken Eilat as well, in exchange for taking control of the Gaza Strip, and we could have a sea exit on both the north and south.
This opportunity is gone now, although I’m convinced that Israel still has this idea to solve the Palestinian problem on the Sinai Peninsula.
If you take a close look on the Middle East, you can see that the whole region is on fire, from Libya to Iraq. You can see the only exception to this is Israel. There is no civil war which devastated the infrastructure of Israel, not even large-scale terrorist attacks like in France. No, Israel is pretty quiet compared to the others in the region.
I’m convinced that the main reason for the Middle Eastern conflicts is international Zionism, which represents Israeli interests. They play a very unfair and dishonest game. Instead of supporting the regional economy and seeking an acceptable compromise, their policy is that only Israel’s security should be granted, while the Arabs are killing each other.
That’s why they are involved in sponsoring different armed groups – to sustain the conflicts in the Arab countries.
SJ: How do Islamist terrorist groups emerge?
MS: Let me give you an example. During the Soviet Union, there were no mafia in Russia; only the KGB was operating in the country. The Russian mafia was formed immediately after the fall of the Soviet regime, with the goal to commit assassinations, blackmail, and to conduct the dirty business of other countries and serve their interests.
The use of Islamic fundamentalism to create local conflicts first emerged during the Russian-Afghan wars. The idea was tested in Afghanistan for the first time. It turned out that religious extremism can easily be adapted in the region, and not too much money is needed to create an Islamist insurgency.
The model proved to be very effective: the Taliban managed to beat the Russian army in Afghanistan. Since that, we can speak of Islamist terrorist organizations.
SJ: What do you think of the Islamic State?
MS: I’m absolutely sure the Islamic State, just like the Taliban of Afghanistan, was artificially created. To back this theory, it is enough to see that compared to other terrorist organizations, which are traditionally using guerrilla tactics and playing hide-and-seek; the location of IS is well known. It could be destroyed even in a day. No one is interested in this though.
SJ: If the Islamic State were artificially created, what were the political motivations behind its creation?
MS: To cut Syria and Iraq into pieces and to expand the Israeli, American, and Turkish zones of influence. If Iraq and Syria are divided into small countries, these countries will automatically belong to one of the interested zones and will be ruled manually by the leading regional or world powers – because they will be too tiny to secure their own national interests.
Israel is interested in acquiring the Golan Heights, maybe some other territories from Syria as well. I don’t find the sudden appearance of the Islamic State in Egypt surprising either. If they can force Egypt to explode as well, then there won’t be a country with a regular army from Syria to Algeria. There would be weak Arabs without a proper army.
SJ: Is it possible to stop this process?
MS: In order to stop it, the Arabs should first realize the true nature these ongoing conflicts, unite their forces and form a block. We have to realize that we do not pose a threat to each other. On the contrary, we are natural allies.
SJ: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian leadership want to create a joint Sunni army. It was approved by the Arab League last year in Sharm El-Shiekh.
MS: I wouldn’t call it a “Sunni army”, because I don’t think the idea is based on sectarianism, and I don’t really find the differences that big between Sunni and Shia. The sectarian hostility is an artificially created issue as well.
Just see what happened after the execution of Saddam in Iraq. The United States favored the Shia, who got into power. They suppressed the Sunnis so badly that they created a block and formed the Islamic State.
In the beginning, the US had no problems with that, especially after the Shia government did everything to get rid of the US presence from the country. The US policy-makers thought the IS would push back the Shia influence, especially Iran.
Saud Arabia had no problems with the IS while the group was fighting in Syria, against Assad. On several occasions, Assad insulted the Saudi crown prince.
Turkey always wanted to get rid of the Alavi leadership in Damascus and replace it with a Sunni puppet government.
When the spread of IS became inconvenient for these powers and they became unable to control the organization, they created the so-called “anti-IS coalition”.
The real willingness was missing, though, to totally destroy the Islamic State. They conducted “easy” airstrikes on their positions, which did not shake the organization itself.
On the other hand, the US has provided weapons to several militias who were fighting Assad. It was obvious from the very beginning that these weapons would get into the wrong hands – to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
SJ: How did things change with the Russian intervention?
MS: The Russian intervention changed everything. Serious military maneuvers can be expected in the near future. Behind closed doors, there are negotiations between the US and Russia, and the US seems more committed than ever to solving the crisis, because they are afraid that the situation could turn into an open conflict between them.
I think the deal will be that they keep Assad for a while to stabilize the situation, but in the end, Assad’s fate will be sealed by the Syrian people. I’m sure that no one would like to send in ground troops. They want to solve this crisis politically.
SJ: Will Egypt participate in solving the Syrian crisis?
MS: I think it’s unavoidable. However much Egypt tried not to get involved in the Syrian conflict, I think this kind of Arab policy is not sustainable anymore. The Arabs should have already supported Iraq. If they were doing that immediately after the US invasion, we wouldn’t be talking about Shia-Sunni conflict and sectarian tensions.
I really hope that the Arab countries soon will intervene in the conflicts in the region, starting with Syria. The stabilization of Syria is the first step to stabilizing the region, and this can be achieved through politics and not military intervention.
We have to force all participants in the conflict to negotiate. If we achieve this, the IS will collapse by itself. We have to achieve this.
I think Egypt is lucky to have Sisi as president. In the last decades, the policies of the country were awful – no planning, no vision was present. Egypt was okay during Sadat and during the first five years of the Mubarak era, but after that, bad and worse decisions were made – which led to the Arab Spring.
I think a new era has started with Sisi. He has a vision and I’m convinced he already has a plan to solve the Syrian crisis.
SJ: The Syrian crisis has triggered a huge wave of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to Europe. Do you think that if the war in Syria ends these people will return?
MS: I don’t think these people will ever return to Syria after they have settled in Europe. Why would they? They would have to return to a totally destroyed country, leaving an already established existence.
I think the Syrians will fit into Europe quite well. They are one of the most educated and sophisticated societies in the Middle East. As far as I know, Europe must do something about the decrease of its population, so this could be a good thing for everyone.
Those who have assets in Syria might return, of course, but the majority of the refugees have nothing to return to in Syria.