Two of America’s linchpin allies in the Middle East are bitterly feuding, complicating the Obama administration’s hopes of confronting Sunni Salafists and containing the ambitions of Shiite Iran.
Egypt is accusing Turkey of working with the Islamic State on the Sinai Peninsula, a new low in the already poor relations between the two regional powers.
Washington has finally coaxed Turkey into a greater commitment to take on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, across the border in Syria, while the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi battles a surge of Islamist violence.
“For a long time now, we have called on all states in the region to be more forthcoming in dealing with the ISIS threat, including monitoring and control of borders,” Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters in Cairo on Sunday. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case with Turkey.”
A senior Foreign Ministry official said later that Egypt could prove Turkey was supporting the Islamic State affiliate in Sinai, Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, a terrorist group that has fired rockets at Israel and attacked security forces after the Egyptian military under Mr. el-Sisi overthrew the country’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. The group also calls itself Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province.
“We have evidence linking the Turkish government to Ansar Beit Al Maqdis,” said the source. “This is in addition to the support the Turks have given to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.”
On July 4, Egyptians made public pictures of men killed or captured in Sinai who were suspected of being agents with Turkey’s intelligence agency, MiT. On July 23, the privately owned, pro-government Tahrir News identified the four men as MiT colonel Ismail Aly Bal and operatives Diaa El Din Mehmet Gado, Bakoush Al Hussaini Youzmi and Abd Allah Al Turki.
Egypt made the striking statements after Turkey launched its first attacks against the Islamic State in northern Syria last week and allowed the U.S. to use Turkish air bases for bombing runs against the militants after Turkey resisted American assaults from its territory for the past year.
Jacques Neriah, a former deputy head for assessment of Israeli military intelligence, said the American-Turkish cooperation likely reflected Ankara’s attempt to conduct damage control and bolster its image in Washington.
“I believe that after the Egyptians published the names of four captured Turkish agents, the Americans started asking Ankara tough questions,” Mr. Neriah said. “The Turks needed to reassure the Americans that they are in fact the good guys and this is why out of the blue they let the Americans use Incirlik [Air Base] in order to attack ISIS.”
The contretemps are the latest in a souring relationship between Cairo and Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose political career has been based on a quest to expand the role of Islam in his country’s relentlessly secular political system, criticized the military coup against Mr. Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader. Mr. Morsi is now in prison and facing the death penalty.
Mr. Erdogan’s ties to Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that propelled him to power, have rankled the Egyptian military since June 2013, when MiT chief Hakan Findan was dispatched to Cairo to warn Mr. Morsi of contacts between street protest organizers and the armed forces.
Egypt believes Mr. Findan relayed intelligence to Mr. Morsi that the military was about to give the beleaguered president an ultimatum to meet popular demands or leave office. The military took power in July 2013. Soon afterward, Egypt banned the Brotherhood.
On July 12, the Egyptian military spokesman said authorities had uncovered a “terrorist cell” receiving instructions from Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Turkey whose mission was to destabilize Egypt. Istanbul serves as the broadcast center for Muslim Brotherhood groups that have called for the overthrow of Mr. el-Sisi, the spokesman said.
One of the groups, Mekamelin, or Finishing the Job, transmitted satellite television feeds to Sinai that featured Islamic extremist Hossam Alshorabagy, who regularly accuses army conscripts from Upper Egypt of raping Bedouin women while patrolling the Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian officials also contend that Turkish weapons showed up in the hands of Ansar Beit Al Maqdis militants who fought Egyptian troops in the Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid in early July. A July 15 missile strike against an Egyptian patrol boat off the Gaza coast in the Mediterranean Sea also likely used Turkish weapons, the officials said.
In those cases, the Turkish weapons probably came from Islamic State-linked militants in Libya, the Egyptian officials said, citing a United Nations report from February 2014 that detailed how Turkish munitions were flooding into that war-torn North African country.
The diplomatic rift between Egypt and Turkey also reflects changes in both countries’ stances toward Israel.
Late last month, Egypt appointed Hazem Khairat as its first ambassador to Israel in three years. Mr. Morsi recalled Egypt’s envoy in 2012 after an Israeli attack killed a Hamas terrorist leader. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has yet to appoint an ambassador to Turkey. Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador and downgraded relations between the two countries in 2013 after Mr. Erdogan called for the release of Mr. Morsi.
Israel also has been sounding alarms about Turkey’s involvement in Sinai, which local observers said stemmed from the group’s penetration of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
“There are dozens of Turks staying in Gaza, and they are not just normal citizens or aid workers,” said Abu Suliman, 35, a Sinai Bedouin community activist.
He said he has refused Ansar Beit Al Maqdis militants who approached him about smuggling arms in the region. “They started to get in touch with ISIS in Sinai using Gaza as their intelligence base for Egypt,” he said.