In his memoirs Knights under the Prophet’s Banner: Meditations on the Jihadist Movement, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri observed:
The problem of finding a secure base for jihad activity in Egypt used to occupy me a lot, in view of the [activity against us] by the security forces and because of Egypt’s flat terrain, which made government control easy, for the River Nile runs in its narrow valley between two deserts that have no vegetation or water. Such a terrain made guerilla warfare in Egypt impossible…Because of the difficulties in overthrowing the Egyptian government, Zawahiri and many other Egyptian Islamists moved to Afghanistan where they coalesced around Osama bin Laden and his nascent al-Qaeda movement, and helped turn al-Qaeda’s focus to the backer of the corrupt Arab regimes – the United States.
Now, in Gaza, the enemies of the Egyptian regime finally have the secure base they have long sought. There are reports of Palestinian terror cells affiliating with al-Qaeda as well as international “volunteers” filtering in. However, al-Qaeda is not the gravest Gaza-based threat to Egypt. Hamas itself has proven to be a formidable organization. The destruction of the Gaza barrier was a formidable technical achievement that required months of careful preparation. But the political preparation was also carefully managed. Hamas successfully advanced its story of deprivation at the hands of an Israeli blockade (in fact, Israel consistently allowed necessities through and only cut off fuel in response to a barrage of rocket attacks). But Hamas also provoked a border incident with the Egyptian border police earlier in the week. In the incident they used a tactic that they had often used against Israel, fomenting a riot and then shooting from among the mob. The Israelis developed counter-measures (particularly snipers), but as this video shows the Egyptians did not.
These images, broadcast live on al-Jazeera, helped inspire large-scale demonstrations orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza (which is better known as Hamas.)
Although the Egyptian government insists it will restore order on the border, the fact that another section of the wall has been destroyed since, makes this unlikely. Egypt was outmaneuvered by Hamas and does not have the stomach for a real crackdown if it also means confronting its domestic Islamist opposition. Mubarak is paying the price for his long double game of Islamists at home and abroad.
Hamas however is also a key component of the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria-Hamas axis (helpfully dubbed HISH by Barry Rubin). Iran and Hezbollah link with Hamas are deep and extensive. They have trained together; their leaderships are in regular contact and Hezbollah personnel have operated in Gaza for several years. In addition, Iran has established a network of hospitals in the West Bank.
Certainly the terrorist threat to Israel will increase. Imported rockets can reach Ashkelon, an important Israeli port and industrial center. While Gaza has been a poor base for suicide bombs against Israel, Israeli security is now worried about suicide attacks from Gaza entering Israel via the Sinai. However, as serious as these threats are, they can be contained.
However, a new base of operations against Egypt could have vast geopolitical implications. Egypt has a fragile economy, frustrated populace with a large Islamist movement, and an aging leadership. There have already been terror attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula with Gaza links. Even if the regime is not overthrown, HISH will acquire substantial leverage over Egypt, and further the penetration of radical Islam into the largest Arab state, while acquiring a staging ground into the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond.