Egyptian military on Wednesday launched missile strikes against Islamist militants believed to be responsible for the Sunday attack on Egyptian police and the subsequent attempt to attack Israeli troops on the other side of the border in the Sinai peninsula.
Plenty of ramifications here. Above all, the attacks have rekindled fears of Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups taking advantage of growing lawlessness in Sinai to establish a base for incursions into Israelá and attacks against the Egyptian state.
Most people know Sinai for the holiday resorts on the coastline, but the interior populated with Bedouin tribes has been long neglected by Cairo's development plans under former president Hosni Mubarak. With central government mattering little in their lives, many Bedouin tribes turned to smuggling of various goods across the border into the Gaza strip to make a living.
More recently, new militant groups established their presence in Sinai's vast and poorly policed terrain, taking advantage of local resentment of the central government to look for recruits and to take part in illicit operations. The problem has been compounded by the messy political transition in Egypt which hasá loosened further the government's grip on the troubled territory.
Attacks against police and violent crime have multiplied over the past year and a half, creating a headache for Egypt, Israel, as well as for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that rules Gaza - a rare point of convergence between the three sides, though no guarantee of cooperation.
The Long War Journal website has reported last December on the formation of a new militant entity in Sinai, called "Ansar al-Jihad". The group claims allegiance to Al Qaeda, although it is unclear how it connects to other shadowy groups operating in the area, or whether its actions are formally sanctioned by Al Qaeda's central leadership in north Pakistan.
Over the coming days,the reaction of local communities in Sinai to the latest events should offer more clue on the level of local support enjoyed by the militant groups. At any rate, Al Qaeda's leaders may well find it hard to resist an offer of a potential safe haven right on Israel's border, and I might soon have to add Sinai to my guide on Al Qaeda branches in the Middle East.
Photo by Uriel Sinai / Getty Images.