Has al-Qaeda Opened a New Chapter in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

August 17, 2011

The one area of Egypt that appeared ready to explode into violence during last January’s revolution was the Sinai. Unlike the unarmed, peaceful demonstrators that filled the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, the Bedouin tribesmen of the Sinai were well armed and already engaged in a low-level conflict with Egyptian authorities over a number of issues, including Bedouin smuggling activities, a traditional occupation that has lately become politicized through Bedouin interaction with radical Islamists in Gaza, the end-user of the weapons the desert dwellers are shipping to Sinai’s eastern border. Possibly the only reason a large-scale conflict did not break out in Sinai at the time was the flight or desertion of nearly all the police and security forces based in Sinai after a number of attacks on police stations. Now, however, after a growing number of acts of militancy and the release of an alarming video allegedly depicting the formation of an al-Qaeda-sympathetic movement in Sinai known as al-Shabaab al-Islam (The Youth of Islam), Egypt’s security forces are back, this time accompanied by a significant military presence. [1] The release of the video and a subsequent statement followed an attack on an al-Arish police station in northeast Sinai and the fifth attack this year on a pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel

Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula

An August 2 pamphlet distributed in al-Arish entitled “A Statement from al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” displayed a mix of local and regional concerns, demanding an Islamic Emirate in the Sinai, an end to the exploitation of Sinai’s wealth by non-residents, the full implementation of Shari’a, an end to discrimination against the Bedouin, the revocation of Egypt’s treaties with Israel and Egyptian military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza. It also questioned the military government’s efforts to halt drug-smuggling in the region (Youm7.com [Cairo], August 2; Bikya Masr [Cairo], August 2). Though the video was carried on jihadi websites before being taken down by its host, the declaration of a new branch of al-Qaeda in this highly sensitive and strategic region has yet to be supported by a statement from any of al-Qaeda’s known media outlets.

Still from the video released by al-Shabaab al-Islam.

Despite the influx of Egyptian security forces into the Sinai, the military-run interim government is reluctant to acknowledge the emergence of an al-Qaeda chapter in the Sinai. One state-controlled Egyptian daily described the group’s declaration as “a fabrication” (al-Jumhuriyah [Cairo], August 4).

The latest disturbances began on July 29 when tribesmen in Land Cruisers or on motorcycles attacked a police station in al-Arish, killing three civilians and two security officers as well as wounding 19 others (MENA Online, July 30). The attack occurred the same day as an estimated one million Islamists gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an Islamic state in Egypt. Tribal sources indicated that most of the attackers came from a single village that had become a stronghold of Salafi-Jihadis who “raise the black flags of al-Qaeda” (al-Ahram [Cairo], August 1). A later statement by police said that 15 suspects had been arrested in connection with the attack, ten of them Palestinians (al-Ahram, July 31).

On July 30, an Egyptian National Gas Company (Gasco) pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel was attacked for the third time in a month, and the fifth time this year. The attackers punched a hole through the pipeline with rocket-propelled grenades. The pipeline was still out of operation following an earlier attack on July 12 (Jerusalem Post, July 31). Israeli sources indicate that a second attack on the pipeline in the early hours of July 30 was beaten off by private security forces working for Israel’s East Mediterranean Gas Company (Globes Online [Rishon LeZion], July 31).

Beside the militants’ distaste for Israel, the pipeline also symbolizes the corruption of the Hosni Mubarak regime, which is believed to have offered a contract at below-market prices to Israel in return for kickbacks. The loss in revenue to the Egyptian state is estimated at roughly $700 million. One tribal leader insisted that locals viewed such attacks by militants as little more than a nuisance: “The most they do is torch the pipeline that transfers gas to Israel and we couldn’t care less about whether Israel has gas or not” (Daily News Egypt, August 12). The steady series of attacks on the $500 million al-Arish to Ashkelon pipeline have placed the future of the project in jeopardy and Israel is already looking for alternative supplies.

Further unrest spread to the main border crossing with Gaza at Rafah, a key smuggling site, where Egyptian police turned back hundreds of people (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], July 31).

The Bedouin Struggle with the State

As the meeting point of Asia and Africa, the Sinai has always been important to Egypt’s security. Though the Sinai has been, with brief interruptions, a part of Egypt in one form or another since the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty (c. 3100 – 2890 B.C.E.), it has also been regarded as something apart from the Egypt of the Nile and Delta, a remote wasteland useful for mineral exploitation and strategic reasons but otherwise best left (outside of Egyptian security outposts) to the unruly Semitic and Bedouin tribes that have called the Sinai home since ancient times. The effect of these policies is that the Sinai Bedouin form only a tiny minority of Egypt’s total population, but retain an absolute majority in the Sinai.

In recent decades, however, Cairo has attempted to impose the deeply infiltrated security regime that existed in the rest of the country up until last January’s revolution. Many Bedouin involved in traditional smuggling activities found themselves in Egyptian prisons serving long sentences in often brutal conditions. The attempt to impose a security regime on the freedom-minded Bedouin led to a greater alienation of the tribesmen from the state, and the Egyptian uprising presented an opportunity to quickly roll back decades of attempts to impose state control on life in the Sinai. Most importantly, it opened the door for those influenced by the Salafist movements of neighboring Gaza to begin operations.

There are roughly 15 Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. In the politically sensitive northeast region (including al-Arish and the border area) the most important are the Sawarka and Rumaylat. There are also significant Palestinian populations in al-Arish and the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid

Local Bedouin took the opportunity of storming the Sinai’s prisons, freeing an unknown number of Bedouin smugglers and Palestinian militants. In nearly all cases they were unopposed by prison staff. One of the escapees was Ali Abu Faris, who was convicted for involvement in the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings that killed 88 people in 2005. Others freed included Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners convicted more recently of planning terrorist operations in Egypt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009). Since emptying the prisons the tribesmen have warned the police to stay out of the main smuggling centers on penalty of death and the region has been effectively operating without any type of government. Police stationed in the north Sinai have tended to be drawn from Egypt’s Nile and Delta population rather than local sources, giving the impression of an occupation force to some of the Sinai’s more-independent minded Bedouin.

One unintended consequence of sealing the border between Gaza and Egypt has been growing cooperation between Bedouin and Gazan smugglers. While goods and arms have passed into Gaza, Salafi-Jihadi ideology has crossed into Sinai in return. A new and volatile combination of Bedouin dissatisfaction, Palestinian radicalism and Salafist-Jihadi ideology erupted in 2004 with the emergence of the Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (Monotheism and Struggle) – a mixed Bedouin-Palestinian group that opposed the presence of Egyptian security forces and sought to end tourism in the region, especially visits to historical or archaeological sites, which the group regarded as idolatry. The new group carried out a series of bombings in 2004-2005 that targeted tourist resorts in Sinai (well used by Israelis) and international peacekeepers belonging to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) (see Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2006). The government security operations that followed cast a very wide net, killing dozens of suspects and sweeping thousands of Bedouin into detention, creating an ever more hostile relationship between the Bedouin and Egyptian administrators and security forces.

Cairo’s Military Response

Cairo addressed the emerging threat on August 12 by sending over 2000 troops from the Egyptian Second Division backed by police and border guards to al-Arish, along with a number of armored vehicles stripped of their main armaments to meet security obligations under Egypt’s treaty with Israel. Authorities were emphatic that the deployment was for defensive purposes only and that none of the troops would be “chasing anyone in Sinai’s mountains” (al-Masry al-Youm, August 12). The deployment marks the largest Egyptian military presence in the Sinai since the signing of the 1979 Camp David Accords.

The military response is hampered by Camp David Accord restrictions on the deployment of Egyptian military forces in parts of the Sinai, especially in the sensitive “Zone C” near the Israeli border, where only international peacekeepers and Egyptian civilian police were allowed to carry arms before a 2005 agreement with Israel permitted the deployment of 750 soldiers to secure the border. Al-Arish is located in Zone B, where Egypt is permitted to maintain four border security battalions, but Rafah and Zuwaid are within Zone C.

Despite attempts to downplay the extent of the deployment in Sinai, the inclusion of two brigades of Special Forces (1,000 men) would indicate significant operations are planned. Security sources claim the deployment is called “Operation Eagle” and is designed to restore security in the Sinai in three phases:

  • Supported by armored vehicles and warplanes, the troops will restore security in northern Sinai and crack down on organized crime and smuggling rings in al-Arish.
  • Security forces will then deploy in the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid, where they anticipate strong resistance. Salafists have already destroyed the shrine of Shaykh Zuwaid in the town that bears his name, an action typical of Salafist ideology.
  • The last phase of the operation will be a coordinated ground-air offensive in the mountains of central Sinai, particularly the Mount Halal area, which is believed to be a haven for militants (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 13; Egyptian Gazette, August 13).

So far, the deployment has not impressed many tribesmen. Of the disarmed armored vehicles, tribal leader Shaykh Hassan Khalaf remarked: “They look stupid and are completely useless in facing Islamist groups who carry machine guns and heavy artillery. Israel has tied the army’s hands.” North Sinai governor al-Sa’id Abd al-Wahab Mabruk has denied the existence of “Operation Eagle,” insisting that the newly arrived security forces will be limited to protecting individuals and buildings (Daily News Egypt, August 12).

The return of the Egyptian military to sensitive areas of the Sinai has been encouraged in some quarters of Egypt as a necessary step to allay fears of Israeli military action designed to protect Israel’s security in the border region (al-Ahram [Cairo], August 12). Typical of the suspicion regarding Israeli intentions is a report in a Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily that said Egyptian security sources claimed to have intelligence regarding contacts between the militants and Israel’s Mossad in relation to obtaining material support for further terrorist operations that would give Israel an excuse to stop the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 12).

The Salafist Denial

Reports are circulating that claim Sinai’s Salafist community intends to replace traditional Bedouin councils with courts run by Salafist shaykhs, their writ enforced by 6,000 armed men. According to a leading local Salafist, Shaykh Sulayman Abu Ayyub, the Salafists “will work to serve justice between people, even if we have to use force through youth members” (al-Misri al-Youm [Cairo], August 10). Local Salafist leader Shaykh As’ad al-Beek has denied the reports, however, maintaining that the Salafists do not conduct any armed activities (Daily News Egypt, August 12).

The leader of the Salafist movement in al-Arish, As’as Bey al-Arish, denied that the Salafis had entered into any confrontations with police in Sinai, claiming that such rumors originate with Israel’s Mossad, which “propagates such rumors to foster instability in Sinai” (Youm7.com [Cairo], August 12; Bikya Masr [Cairo], August 12). Other Salafist leaders have denied that the movement had any part in the attack on the al-Arish police station (MENA Online, August 2).


The near collapse of Egypt’s internal security forces has opened to Egypt to a resurgence of Islamist violence that would have been inconceivable a year ago. There are now concerns within Egypt that the nation’s sizeable but divided Islamist community intends to usurp the secular revolution to impose an Islamic state in Egypt.

Aside from suspicions of Israeli involvement in instigating the unrest, some Egyptian commentators see the hand of HAMAS behind the disturbances in the Sinai (al-Akhbar [Cairo], August 10). However, there seems to be a general reluctance to discuss the specific grievances of the Sinai Bedouin or their place in Egyptian society. Thousands of years of Egyptian occupation have failed to integrate the native peoples of the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt, whether socially, politically or even economically. The persisting sense of alienation provides fertile ground for the growth of militancy, conditions easily exploited by Salafist-Jihadi groups that see themselves fighting two enemies in the region – the apostate regime in Cairo and the Zionist regime in Israel. While the enhanced security force now in the Sinai may be able to restore some semblance of security in the urban areas of the northeast, it will almost certainly be insufficient to tackle the militants should they decamp to the wild, cave-ridden mountain region of central Sinai.


1. The video was posted to YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYuKeeIVFzM ) on July 27, but has since been removed “as a violation of YouTube’s policy on depiction of harmful activities.”

This article was first published as a Jamestown Foundation Special Commentary on August 17, 2011

Strange Days on the Red Sea Coast: A New Theater for the Israel-Iran Conflict?

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Over the last few months, the strategically important African Red Sea coast has suddenly become the focal point of rumors involving troop-carrying submarines, ballistic missile installations, desert-dwelling arms smugglers, mysterious airstrikes and unlikely alliances. None of the parties alleged to be involved (including Iran, Israel, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, France, Djibouti, Gaza and the United States) have been forthcoming with many details, leaving observers to ponder a tangled web of reality and fantasy. What does appear certain, however, is that the regional power struggle between Israel and Iran has the potential to spread to Africa, unleashing a new wave of political violence in an area already consumed with its own deadly conflicts.

Red SeaIsraeli Air Force F-16I Sufa (Storm)

Airstrike in the Desert

Though an airstrike on a column of 23 vehicles was carried out on January 27 near Mt. Alcanon, in the desert northwest of Port Sudan, news of the attack first emerged in a little-noticed interview carried on March 23 in the Arabic-language Al-Mustaqillah newspaper (see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1854). In the interview, Sudanese Transportation Minister Dr. Mabruk Mubarak Salim, the former leader of the Free Lions resistance movement in eastern Sudan, said that aircraft he believed to be French and American had attacked a column of vehicles in Sudan eastern desert after receiving intelligence indicating a group of arms smugglers was transporting arms to Gaza. Dr. Salim’s Free Lions Movement was based on the Rasha’ida Arabs of east Sudan, a nomadic group believed to control smuggling activities along the eastern Egypt-Sudan border.

On March 26, Dr. Salim told al-Jazeera there had been at least two airstrikes, carried out by U.S. warplanes launched from American warships operating in the Red Sea. There was no further mention of the French, who maintain an airbase in nearby Djibouti. After the news broke in the media, Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig issued some clarifications:

The first thought was that it was the Americans that did it. We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved… We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel… We didn’t know about the first attack until after the second one. They were in an area close to the border with Egypt, a remote area, desert, with no towns, no people (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

With the Americans out of the way, suspicion fell on Israel as the source of the attack.

Sudanese authorities later claimed the convoy was carrying not arms, but a large number of migrants from a number of African countries, particularly Eritrea (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27; Sudan Tribune, March 28). According to Foreign Minister Ali al-Sadig; “it is clear that [the attackers] were acting on bad information that the vehicles were carrying arms” (Haaretz, March 27). Dr. Salim claimed the death toll was 800 people, contradicting his earlier claim that the convoy consisted of small trucks carrying arms and that most of those killed were Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans (al-Jazeera, March 26). There was also some confusion about the number of attacks, with initial claims of a further strike on February 11 and a third undated strike on an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea. The latter rumor may have had its source in Dr. Salim’s suggestion that several Rasha’ida fishing boats had been attacked by U.S. and French warplanes. Otherwise, no evidence has been provided to substantiate these claims.

A Hamas leader, Salah al-Bardawil, denied his movement had any knowledge of such arms shipments, pointing to the lack of a common border between Gaza and Sudan as proof “these are false claims” (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

A Smuggling Route to Sinai?

The alleged smuggling route, beginning at Port Sudan, would take the smugglers through 150 miles of rough and notoriously waterless terrain to the Egyptian border and the disputed territory of Hala’ib, currently under Egyptian occupation. From there the route would pass roughly 600 miles through Egypt’s Eastern Desert, a rocky and frequently mountainous wasteland. Criss-crossing the terrain to find a suitable way through could add considerably to the total distance. North of the Egyptian border the Sudanese smugglers would be crossing hundreds of miles of unfamiliar and roadless territory. The alternatives would involve offloading the arms near the border to an Egyptian convoy or making a change of drivers. Anonymous “defense sources” cited by the Times claimed local Egyptian smugglers were engaged to take over the convoy at the Egyptian border “for a fat fee” (The Times, March 29).

Use of the well-patrolled coastal road would obviously be impossible without official Egyptian approval. The other option for the smugglers would be to cut west to the Nile road which passes through hundreds of settled areas and a large number of security checkpoints. The convoy would need to continually avoid security patrols along the border and numerous restricted military zones along the coast. Either Egyptian guides or covert assistance from Egyptian security services would be needed for a 23 vehicle convoy to reach Sinai from the Egyptian border without interference. Once in the Sinai there is little alternative to taking the coastal route to Gaza, passing through one of Egypt’s most militarily sensitive areas, to reach the smuggling tunnels near the border with Gaza.

Water, gasoline, spare parts and other supplies would take up considerable space in the trucks. Provisions would have to be made for securing and transporting the loads of disabled trucks that proved irreparable, particularly if their loads included parts for the Fajr-3 rockets the convoy was alleged to be carrying, without which the other loads might prove unusable. Freeing the trucks from sand (a problem worsened by carrying a heavy load of arms) and making repairs could add days to the trip. The alleged inclusion of Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guard in the convoy would be highly risky – if stopped by Egyptian security forces, every member of the arms convoy would be detained and interrogated (Israeli sources claimed several Iranians were killed in the raid). It would not take long to separate the Iranians from the Arabs, with all the consequences that would follow from the exposure of an Iranian intelligence operation on Egyptian soil.

Of course most of these problems would disappear if Egypt was giving its approval to the arms shipments. But if this was the case, why not send the arms through Syria and by ship to a port near the Gaza border? Ships are the normal vehicle for arms deliveries as massive quantities of arms are usually required to change the military balance in any situation.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the arms were “apparently transferred from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Yemen, from there to Sudan and then to Egypt through Sinai and the tunnels under the Egypt Gaza border” and included “various types of missiles, rockets, guns and high-quality explosives” (Haaretz, March 29). The Yemen stage is unexplained; Iranian ships can easily reach Port Sudan without a needless overland transfer of their cargos in Yemen before being reloaded onto ships going to Port Sudan. Looking at this route (the simplest of several proposed by Israeli sources), one can only assume Hamas was in no rush to obtain its weapons.

Reserves Major General Giyora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, alleged the involvement of a number of parties in the Sinai to Gaza arms trade, including “Bedouin and Egyptian army officers who are benefiting from the smuggling.” He then turned to the possibility of arms being shipped through Sudan to Gaza; “Almost all of the weapons are smuggled into Gaza through the Sinai, and some probably by sea. Little comes along this long [Sudan to Gaza] route” (Voice of Israel Network, March 27).

Video footage of the burned-out convoy was supplied to al-Jazeera by Sudanese intelligence sources. The footage shows only small pick-up trucks, largely unsuitable for transporting heavy arms payloads. If Fajr-3 missiles broken down into parts were included in the shipment, there would be little room for other arms (each Fajr-3 missile weighs at least 550 kilograms). Sudanese authorities described finding a quantity of ammunition, several C-4 and AK-47 rifles and a number of mobile phones used for communications by the smugglers. There was no mention of missile parts (El-Shorouk [Cairo], March 24). No evidence has been produced by any party to confirm the origin of the arms allegedly carried by the smugglers’ convoy.

Assessing Responsibility

Citing anonymous “defense sources,” the Times claimed the convoys had been tracked by Mossad, enabling an aerial force of satellite-controlled UAVs to kill “at least 50 smugglers and their Iranian escorts” (The Times [London], March 29). American officials also reported that at least one operative from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had gone to Sudan to organize the weapons convoy (Haaretz/Reuters, March 27). According to the Times’ sources, the convoy attacks were carried out by Hermes 450 and Eitan model UAVs in what would have been an aviation first – a long distance attack against a moving target carried out solely by a squadron of remote control drones.

U.S.-based Time Magazine entered the fray on March 30 with a report based on information provided by “two highly-placed Israeli security sources.” According to these sources, the United States was informed of the operation in advance but was otherwise uninvolved. Dozens of aircraft were involved in the 1,750 mile mission, refuelling in midair over the Red Sea. Once the target was reached, F15I fighters provided air cover against other aircraft while F16I fighters carried out two runs on the convoy. Drones with high-resolution cameras were used to assess damage to the vehicles.

The American-made F16I “Sufa” aircraft were first obtained by the IAF in 2004. They carry Israeli-made conformal fuel tanks to increase the range of the aircraft and use synthetic aperture radar that enables the aircraft to track ground targets day or night. The older F15I “Ra’am” is an older but versatile model, modified to Israeli specifications.

The entire operation, according to the Israeli sources used by Time, was planned in less than a week to act on Mossad information that Iran was planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, “including anti-tank rockets and Fajr rockets with a 25 mile range” in a 23 truck convoy (though this shipment seems impossibly large for 23 pick-up trucks with a maximum payload capacity of one ton or less – on paved roads). The Israeli sources added that this was the first time the smuggling route through Sudan had been used.

Israeli officials claimed anonymously that the convoy was carrying Fajr-3 rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv (Sunday Times, March 29; Jerusalem Post, March 29). The Fajr-3 MLRS is basically an updated Katyusha rocket that loses accuracy as it approaches the limit of its 45km range and carries only a small warhead of conventional explosives. It has been suggested that the missiles carried by the convoy “could have changed the game in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants,” thus making the attack an imperative for Israel (BBC, March 26). Yet far from being “a game-changer,” the Fajr-3 was already used against Israel by Hezbollah in 2006. It has also been claimed that the Fajr-3 rockets could be used against Israel’s nuclear installation at Dimona, but Israeli officials reported at the start of the year that Hamas already possessed dozens of Fajr-3 rockets (Sunday Times, January 2). Some media accounts have confused the Fajr-3 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which would seem to be the weapon in question, with the much larger Fajr-3 medium-range ballistic missile.

Reports of the complete destruction of the entire convoy and all its personnel raise further questions. Desert convoys tend to be long, strung out affairs, not least because it is nearly impossible to drive in the dust of the vehicle ahead. Could an airstrike really kill every single person involved in a strung out convoy without a ground force going in to mop up? UAVs with heat sensors and night vision equipment might have remained in the area to eliminate all survivors, but this seems unnecessary if the arms had already been destroyed. The political risk of leaving Israeli aircraft in the area after the conclusion of a successful attack would not equal the benefit of killing a few drivers and mechanics.

What role did Khartoum play in these events? A pan-Arab daily reported that the United States warned the Sudanese government before the Israeli airstrike that a “third party” was monitoring the arms-smuggling route to Gaza and that such shipments needed to stop immediately (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30). Despite state-level disagreements, U.S. and Sudanese intelligence agencies continue to enjoy a close relationship.

With Sudan under international pressure as a result of the Darfur conflict, Khartoum has sought to renew its relations with Iran. Less than two weeks before the airstrike, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdalrahim Hussein concluded a visit to Tehran to discuss arms sales and training for Sudanese security forces. An Iranian source reported missiles, UAVs, RPGs and other equipment were sought by Sudan (Sudan Tribune, January 20).

An Iranian Base on the Red Sea?

As tensions rise in the region, wild allegations have emerged surrounding the creation of a major Iranian military and naval base in the Eritrean town of Assab on the Red Sea coast. Assab is a small port city of 100,000 people. A small Soviet-built oil refinery at Assab was shut down in 1997. Last November an Eritrean opposition group, the Eritrean Democratic Party, published a report on their website claiming Iran had agreed to revamp the small refinery, adding (without any substantiation) that Iran and Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki were planning to control the strategic Bab al-Mandab Straits at the southern entrance to the Red Sea (selfi-democracy.com, November 25, 2008).

Red Sea 2Main Street in Assab: New Iranian Military Base?

A short time later, another Eritrean opposition website elaborated on the original report of a refinery renovation, adding lurid details of Iranian ships and submarines deploying troops and long-range ballistic missiles at a new Iranian military base at Assab. Security was allegedly provided by Iranian UAVs that patrolled the area (EritreaDaily.net, December 10, 2008).

The Israeli MEMRI website then reported that “Eritrea has granted Iran total control of the Red Sea port of Assab,” adding that Iranian submarines had “deployed troops, weapons and long-range missiles… under the pretext of defending the local oil refinery” (MEMRI, December 1, 2008).

The story was further elaborated on by Ethiopian sources (Ethiopia and Eritrea are intense rivals and political enemies). According to one Ethiopian report, Iranian frigates were using Assab as a naval base (Gedab News, January 28). An Ethiopian-based journalist contributed an article to Sudan Tribune in which he again claimed Iranian submarines were delivering troops and long-range missiles to Assab, basing his account on the original report on selfi-democracy.com, which made no such claims (Sudan Tribune, March 30). Israel’s Haaretz noted that Addis Ababa is “a key Mossad base for operations against extremist Islamic groups” in the region, adding that some of the weapons destroyed in the convoy had “reportedly passed through Ethiopia and Eritrea first” (Haaretz, March 27).

Only days ago, a mainstream Tel Aviv newspaper reported that Iran has already finished building a naval base at Assab and had “transferred to this base – by means of ships and submarines – troops, military equipment and long range-ballistic missiles… that can strike Israel.” The newspaper claimed its information was based on reports from Eritrean opposition members, diplomats and aid organizations, without giving any specifics (Ma’ariv [Tel Aviv], March 29). On March 19, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia accused Eritrea of trying to sabotage the peace process in the region by serving as a safe haven for terrorist groups (Walta Information Center [Addis Abbab], March 19). In only four months, a minor refinery renovation was transformed into a strategic threat to the entire Middle East.


Questions remain as to how the moving convoy was found by its attackers. Did Mossad have inside intelligence? Did the Israelis use satellite imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites as part of the agreement they signed in January on the prevention of arms smuggling to Gaza, or did they use their own Ofeq-series surveillance satellites? Was an Israeli UAV already in place when the convoy left Port Sudan? A retired Israeli Air Force general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, recognized the difficulty involved in finding and striking the convoy by noting; “The main innovation in the attack on Sudan… was the ability to hit a moving target at such a distance. The fact that Israel has the technical ability to do such a thing proves even more what we are capable of in Iran” (Haaretz, March 27).

The two-month silence on the attacks from other parties is also notable – it is unlikely U.S. and French radar facilities in Djibouti would have missed squadrons of Israeli jets and UAVs attacking a target in nearby East Sudan. If the Israelis took the shortest route through the Gulf of Aqaba and down the Red Sea they would likely be detected by Egyptian and Saudi radar on their way out and on their way back. According to former IAF commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the attack would require precise intelligence and a two and a half hour flight along the Red Sea coast, keeping low to evade Egyptian and Saudi radar. The aircraft would also require aerial refuelling (Haaretz, March 27).

Even if the aircraft evaded radar, their low flight paths would have exposed them to visual observation in the narrow shipping lanes of the Red Sea.  Israeli aircraft would almost certainly have been tracked by the Combined Task Force-150, an allied fleet patrolling the Red Sea. All other routes would have taken the aircraft through unfriendly airspace. By March 27, an Egyptian official admitted that Egypt had indeed known of the airstrike at the time, but added the Israelis had not crossed into Egyptian airspace (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27).

If Tehran was involved in this remarkably complicated smuggling operation, it will now be taking its entire local intelligence infrastructure apart to find the source of the leak. Egypt is reported to have deployed additional security personnel along the border with Sudan, effectively closing the alleged smuggling route (Haaretz, March 29). As Sudan revives its defense relationship with Iran it is very likely rumors and allegations will continue to proliferate regarding an Iranian presence on the Red Sea.


This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor