Israeli Army Braced for Attack by Islamic State

On alert for attack in Eilat area by IS affiliate

The site of a suicide attack by Ansar Beit al Maqdis in Sinai. / AP

JERUSALEM—The Israeli army is braced for an attack in the Eilat area by an Islamic State-affiliated group based in the Sinai Peninsula, an Israeli officer said today.

In a tour of the region for Israeli military correspondents, the officer, Col. Arik Hen, said that the Ansar Beit al Maqdis terror group, which has engaged in bloody battles with the Egyptian army in Sinai in recent years not far from the border with Israel, is expected to attempt a large-scale attack on southern Israel. Their targets, he said, would include the resort of Eilat. Their tactics could include simultaneous penetration of the border fence at a number of points by large numbers of terrorists, cross border rockets, and the use of hang gliders and speedboats, according to Israel Radio.

"The scenario we are preparing for," said Col. Hen, in a blunt briefing, "is a terror threat directed against our forces and civilians in the Eilat area. The scenario is a multi-pronged attack, not just at one site, and we will likely have to deal with this challenge without prior warning."

The officer did not indicate when such an attack could be expected. Col. Hen indicated that it is difficult for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) to obtain reliable intelligence concerning Ansar Beit al Maqdis. The group, believed to number several hundred, is made up of Bedouins from tribes based in Sinai, which is Egyptian territory and difficult even for Egyptian intelligence to penetrate. Several months ago the group announced that it was pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Its members have inflicted heavy casualties on Egyptian troops who have been unable to track down the group’s leaders, whose lairs are believed to be in the mountainous central part of Sinai. In the past year alone, some 350 Egyptian soldiers, police officers, and intelligence personnel have been killed in the fight against the organization.

Col. Hen said that the IDF has taken steps to meet the threat and called for residents in the area to continue with their lives as normal.

Israel has cooperated with Egypt in its fight against Ansar Beit al Maqdis, waiving restrictions in the peace treaty with Egypt that prohibit the presence of troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters in the areas close to Israel’s borders. The Egyptian army has beefed up its forces on its side of the border.

Ansar Beit al Maqdis appeared as a militant group after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. It first gained prominence by repeated attacks on a pipeline carrying Egyptian gas to Israel and by attempts to fire rockets from Sinai at Eilat.

Its actions became more militant after the overthrow of Mubarak’s elected successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. Its principal target became the Egyptian military, responsible for Morsi’s overthrow, and other security forces in Sinai. Although its main area of operations has been northeast Sinai, in the proximity of the city of El Arish, it has also carried out operations in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. It has been involved in car bombings, frontal assaults on police stations and army camps, drive-by shootings, and beheadings. It claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to assassinate Egypt’s interior minister in Cairo with a car bomb in 2013.

Some observers have termed the group the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the Brotherhood has condemned the group’s attacks, and the group itself has criticized the Brotherhood. Egyptian officials have said that the Gaza Strip serves as a secure hinterland for the group and that Hamas is ideologically linked to the group. The Egyptian army has destroyed hundreds of tunnels connecting Gaza with northern Sinai in recent years but has failed to sever all connections.