Trafficking and the Role of the Sinai Bedouin

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 12

On the evening of October 7, 2004, three trucks laden with explosives were driven to resorts in the northern Sinai where they were detonated, killing more than 30 people and wounding hundreds more. The targets were Israelis vacationing during their High Holidays at the usually tranquil desert oases of Taba, Ras al-Sultan and Tarabeen. At least three previously unknown terrorist organizations claimed responsibility for the terrorist incident; however, the leading suspect and group named by the Egyptian government was al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (“Monotheism and Struggle”), comprised of Bedouin tribesmen from the Sinai Peninsula (al-Ahram Weekly, September 14-20, 2006). The Taba attacks marked the first time that Bedouins from the Sinai were implicated in acts of terrorism on Egyptian soil. This trend continued with the bombings at Sharm el-Sheikh, as well as various shootings of police and other security forces (Daily Star [Egypt], May 10, 2006). Analysts attribute this development to the fact that northern Bedouin tribesmen have not benefited economically as much as their southern brethren by the high level of tourism available in that part of the peninsula. Deep-seeded ideological, political and cultural differences between the Bedouin and the Egyptian government also explain the rise in terrorist activity.

While certainly a minority within the Bedouin population, the majority of illegal trafficking among Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories is conducted by Bedouin smugglers. Bedouin tradition reaches back thousands of years; they are fiercely independent, principled and tribal. Bedouin smugglers tend to be involved in illegal activities namely for the financial benefits and historically negligible risks that such actions entail. Activities targeting Israel have sometimes been ignored by the Egyptians, unlike the scenes of mass arrests and shootouts between Egyptian security forces and Bedouin tribesmen that have plagued the region since the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula [1]. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, this problem has intensified.

While narco-terrorism has been well documented in counter-terrorism and intelligence circles, not enough progress has been made in finding the nexus between terrorism and the many other forms of illegal activity practiced today. An increasingly popular illegal activity that uses the same delivery methods as narcotics, terrorism and weapons smuggling is that of human trafficking. In Israel and Egypt, the Bedouin have played a key role in these smuggling activities as well. Human trafficking of women and underage girls, namely from Eastern Europe and other former Soviet Union states, is a multi-million dollar business in Israel and Egypt, which is operated almost exclusively by the Russian mafia in Israel and Eastern Europe (IsraelInsider, August 18, 2004) [2]. A few years ago, Israel implemented a number of reforms to curtail the activity of human smugglers, including tightening immigration controls at Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Haifa and Ashdod seaports (Fox News, August 18, 2004). Since Israeli officials have made it more difficult to transfer women into Israel through more conventional routes, the Russian mafia has turned to Bedouin tribesmen to accomplish the task.

As the original purveyor of smuggled goods between Israel and the Arab world, the Bedouin were the natural choice for the mafia when it came to human smuggling. As Major General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, former head of research for Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Military Intelligence, has explained, “The smuggling is occurring across large areas, all of which are supposed to be under Egyptian control. Until recently, the Egyptians did not see any risk to themselves from these smuggling [operations]. However, since the terror [attacks] in the Sinai, especially along the shoreline, they are realizing that there is a possible connection between the smuggling into Israel and the terrorist operatives [in Egypt], and therefore maybe they will start to act against the smugglers” [3].

Bedouins are known for their excellent tracking ability. They can detect infiltrators and explosives and lead forces unscathed through harm’s way. While military service in the IDF for Bedouin is not compulsory, a sizeable number choose to volunteer, and the vast majority is known for their outstanding service, notably in special tracking units. Yet, these skills can also be used against the state, and a small number of Bedouin soldiers in the IDF have been found guilty of smuggling and even spying against the state (Naharnet, November 9, 2004; Haaretz, November 9, 2004).

The 70-mile border between Israel and Egypt that separates the Negev desert from the Sinai Peninsula is Israel’s least secure boundary. For a country known for its sophisticated security perimeters, Israel’s southern border does not have even a chain-link fence in many areas. Some have justified this fact by arguing that a barrier would be useless since the shifting winds in the desert would bury it in sand in just a few years’ time. To construct and maintain a more effective barrier would take many years and incredible resources—time and resources that the country does not presently possess, as it is embroiled in conflicts with Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

Smuggling of women (known as the “white slave” trade), along with drugs, weapons and terrorist operatives is achieved by a number of methods: on foot, by all-terrain vehicles and SUVs, through tunnels and even by camel. Having entered Israel, the smuggled goods are transferred to Israeli Bedouin, usually of the same tribe, and transported to larger metropolises like Tel Aviv and Haifa. While there are multiple tribes in both the Sinai and Negev deserts, the most important for purposes of this study are those that span the Egyptian-Israeli and Egyptian-Gaza borders. These include the Sawarka and the Rumaylat tribes in northeast Sinai, the Tarabin, Ahayw’at and the ‘Azazma tribes that span from the Sinai into the West Bank and Israel’s “Green Line” as well as the Tayaha and Hanajra tribes in the Gaza Strip and Israel [4]. Smuggled weapons are usually concealed in various hiding places, including the areas surrounding Mount Harif and the Ramon Crater, and are later acquired by other Bedouins and smuggled to Palestinian militant groups.

Israel has re-shuffled its military units in an attempt to better monitor, intercept and prevent infiltrators and gun-runners from passing through the Sinai into the Negev desert. Due to its successes in thwarting smuggling operations out of the Gaza Strip, the IDF’s Gaza Division has been allocated the additional task of patrolling approximately 40 kilometers of the Sinai border, from the city of Rafah in Gaza eastward, where many smuggling operations have occurred (Haaretz, November 27, 2005). For years, these units largely ignored smuggling activities not directly related to terrorism, such as those of drugs and women. Although Israel and Egypt have made more concrete efforts to capture and prosecute these smugglers, both have fallen short. While Bedouin are often involved in more than one type of illegal activity at a time, military and police units are still targeting smuggling rings individually.

Statements by captured Bedouin involved in the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks illuminate the multidimensional aspects of the problem. One captive admitted to Egyptian interrogators that he sold explosives that he had smuggled to the terrorists who used them in the attacks (IsraelInsider, October 10, 2004). Yet, “the explosives were sold on the assumption that they were going to the Palestinians,” explained an Egyptian official on condition of anonymity (Haaretz, November 27, 2005). This lends credibility to the complaint that the Egyptians do not do enough to stop terrorism being perpetrated outside of its borders. Lately, however, Egyptian security forces have been engaged in a rigorous hunt for Bedouin implicated in terrorist attacks. These security operations have resulted in the arrest of thousands of innocent Bedouin—leading to an even greater level of Bedouin hostility and resentment toward the Egyptian government.

For years, Egypt has been under pressure from U.S. and Israeli sources to secure its border with the Gaza Strip, known as the “Philadelphi Corridor.” To help facilitate this process, immediately prior to the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel agreed to a new protocol, allowing Egypt to boost its border forces in the hopes of stopping the flow of weapons and terrorists into the Palestinian Territories (BBC News, August 1, 2005). Despite these arrangements, however, the smuggling continues. Hamas and other groups took advantage of this lax environment to smuggle fighters, weapons and drugs into the Gaza Strip (Haaretz, October 16, 2006). Palestinian and Israeli officials are concerned that Iranian agents, members of Hezbollah, Iranian-trained members of Hamas and perhaps even elements of al-Qaeda were smuggled into the territory since Israel’s withdrawal (Associated Press, September 15, 2005). Additionally, large numbers of high-grade explosives, mortars, RPGs and anti-tank weapons have appeared during recent internal clashes between Fatah and Hamas (YNetNews, February 5; Jerusalem Post, February 2). Attempts to smuggle weapons from the Sinai continue; the most recent seizure was of approximately 1.5 tons of explosives in central Sinai destined for the Gaza Strip (Reuters, June 4).

As a minority in both states, the Bedouin are singled out both by the Israelis and Egyptians for roles that only a few of their people have participated in, thus exacerbating the resentment within the Bedouin community. This antipathy continues to linger and augment, leading to further conflict and an increase in the number of participants and sympathizers of illegal actions. In recent years, Israel and Egypt have compounded the problem by providing Bedouin with a disproportionately small amount of state resources. In Israel, this has led to Bedouin building towns illegally, which are later ordered destroyed by the Israeli government (The Independent, November 29, 2005; Christian Science Monitor, November 19, 2002). The Egyptian government has faired even worse, with tactics going beyond discrimination to include government crackdowns, mass arrests and shootouts in an atmosphere increasingly tense following the Sinai bombings. Both governments have been criticized by human rights groups for their behavior. As stated by a Bedouin elder regarding the construction of the Sharm el-Sheikh fence in southern Sinai, “They want to keep Sinai Bedouins out of Sharm el-Sheikh, which will only add to our community’s feelings of alienation…Rather than preventing terrorism, that will only increase it” (al-Ahram Weekly, November 2-9, 2006).

Similar sentiment has been voiced regarding the situation in northern Sinai. As Bashir Abdel Fattah, a historian and expert on Sinai society, explains, “Police from Egypt have always been suspicious of north Sinai and, in turn, the people are suspicious of them. Loyalty to the state is low…The question is how to avoid war in the Sinai. But the crackdown only makes people more resentful” (Washington Post, October 2, 2005). Overall, the role of the Bedouin in Egyptian and Israeli society must be carefully monitored since they pose a problematic security threat to both states.


1. As discussed in multiple interviews and correspondences with Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaacov Amidror between April 2005 to December 2006.

2. The Russian mafia operating in Israel is a relatively new phenomenon for the state. The Russian mafia is predominantly comprised of Russians who immigrated to Israel following the breakup of the Soviet Union. While Israel did have its own homegrown, organized crime for decades, the Russian mafia introduced to Israeli society more sophistication as well as an increase in violence. At time of publication, the Israeli police and government are still at odds over how to deal effectively with this relatively new phenomenon.

3. Mentioned in an interview Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaacov Amidror in May 2005.

4. This information was gleamed from an interview with a security official in Israel in the summer of 2006 who asked not to be identified. For more information on the tribes, see the report “Egypt’s Sinai Question” (January 2007) by the International Crisis Group.