U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating reports that al Qaeda-aligned groups played a key role in the deadly commando-style attack near the Israeli resort town of Eilat last week.
A U.S. government assessment of the incident Thursday concludes that either the Palestinian group Popular Resistance Committees or the Gaza-based Army of Islam (or Jaish al Islam), a Palestinian group sympathetic to al Qaeda, carried out the commando assault and bombing raid that emanated from the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula.
One intelligence official who focuses on al Qaeda said an initial assessment identified a new group, al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, as a key perpetrator of the attack.
“There has been a history of close operational coordination between Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and Jaish al Islam, which is the most important of the al Qaeda affiliates in the Gaza Strip,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who now is the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“There have been al Qaeda affiliates that have gotten into an exchange of fire with Hamas that were not Jaish al Islam, though.”
Mr. Gold added, “These organizations all work together, and Sinai is a place where they all meet.”
U.S. officials told The Washington Times there is no confirmation identifying the attacker conclusively.
One intelligence official who focuses on al Qaeda said the majority of all source intelligence points to al Qaeda.
The Popular Resistance Committees group, formed in 2000 and operated out of Gaza, has at times aligned with Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that is the sovereign of Gaza.
Over the weekend, however, as more information was gathered about the attack near Eilat, some Israeli official sources also began to acknowledge that a group known as Jaish al Islam, an extremist Muslim organization, also played a role in the attack.
If confirmed, the involvement of a new Sinai-based al Qaeda group would be yet another extremist group aligned with the goals of the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that spawned more formal affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and North Africa.
One of the intelligence officials said the recent attack also highlighted how Egypt’s military government is losing control of the Sinai Peninsula, the strategically important territory that Israel captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War and then returned to Egyptian control after the two states signed the Camp David Accords in 1979.
Gunmen launched the midday raid after moving in from the Sinai near Eilat and ambushed a civilian Israeli bus. The attackers also detonated a roadside bomb that blew up military vehicles responding to the carnage.
In all, eight civilians were killed by up to 24 attackers armed with automatic weapons, suicide bomb belts and grenades. Five of the attackers were killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers.
The method used in an assault-style raid evoked al Qaeda-backed attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 168 people. It also set off a new round of fighting between Israel and Palestinians over the weekend.
On Friday, Hamas announced that it would break its cease-fire with Israel, but Palestinian sources said Monday evening the cease-fire was back in effect.
The intelligence official who said there are signs of a new Sinai-based group said initial assessments indicated the Popular Resistance Committees’ role was limited to providing advance scouting of locations for the attack.
“PRC was clearly involved, [but] they were not the brains or the brawn of the operation. They were the scouts,” the official said. “Because the PRC squawked after the operation, they became an immediate target. It is not an unjustifiable reaction.”
A U.S. counterterrorism official said initial U.S. reports on the attack also blamed al Qaeda in the Sinai. This official also said the U.S. government had no information to suggest al Qaeda’s core leadership - thought to be based in Pakistan - ordered or supported the attack.
“This is an example of Salafi extremists who tried to link themselves to al Qaeda and use that brand name,” the counterterrorism official said, adding that it would be premature to say al Qaeda in the Sinai is an al Qaeda affiliate the way others, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab in Somalia, are direct affiliates of al Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence reports have said the Sinai terrorist group has a few rudimentary training facilities in the region, as well as strategic control of some towns. The group also is suspected of conducting other recent attacks on a natural gas pipeline in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
The Sinai al Qaeda group is thought to have been bolstered by the release this year of between 200 and 300 prisoners freed in Egypt.
While Israel has said al Qaeda-linked groups maintain a small presence in the Sinai since 2005 and 2006, the capability of such groups has increased in recent months.
In late July, commandos stormed the police station at the northern Sinai regional capital of al-Arish. The attackers then produced a manifesto announcing an Islamic emirate in Sinai, calling themselves al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.
“After the attack on al-Arish, there was no longer any doubt that al Qaeda had some kind of potent presence in the peninsula,” another U.S. official told The Washington Times.
The success of the new group prompted Egypt’s military this month to launch what it called Operation Eagle, a deployment of up to 2,500 troops and 250 military vehicles, according to news reports from the region.
Israel has coordinated the movement of Egyptian troops in the peninsula with the ruling military junta in Cairo since February, allowing up to five battalions in the peninsula. The terms of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt prohibit Egyptian troops in the Sinai unless Israel gives its approval.