A Great and Terrible Wilderness

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Moises Saman / Magnum

A Bedouin stands next to a military tank at a checkpoint in al-Arish, in North Sinai.

Correction appended: Nov. 8, 2013

The Greek orthodox monastery of St. Catherine on the slopes of Mount Sinai — where tradition says God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses — ought to be the last place on earth targeted by Muslim militants. The monastery's museum displays a copy of a 7th century letter dictated by the Prophet Muhammad, specifically ordering that the compound be protected by armies carrying the flag of Islam into Egypt. "Instead of conflict, we are an example that these things that make for conflict can be transcended," says Father Justin, who runs the monastery's library. "So that Sinai becomes a symbol of peace."

The symbol is now in peril. On Aug. 15, Egyptian authorities ordered St. Catherine's to be shuttered, fearing an attack by the Islamist extremists who have made Sinai the latest battleground for global jihad. Egypt's ruling military was sending tanks, helicopters and F-16s into the "great and terrible wilderness" of Deuteronomy, and the generals were unable to guarantee the monastery's safety. The extremists seemed to care little for the area's history. "I don't think it has any sentimental value to the jihadists," says Mohammed Abu Noor, a professor of religion in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave that abuts Sinai. "The only value for them is that Sinai's security is out of control."

The place where the Law was handed down is now lawless, and the consequences could shake the entire Middle East. The Sinai peninsula dangles like a shark's tooth between Asia and Africa, a land bridge of flat, monotonous desert in its northern half — where the army is hunting militants — giving way to mountains farther south, including a central formation that calls to mind Afghanistan's Tora Bora. The conflict that closed down St. Catherine's threatens the Suez Canal, which borders Sinai to the west and the rest of Egypt to the east. Its isolation allows extremists the room to lurk and plot that al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan before 9/11 and that jihadis enjoyed in the Anbar region during the Iraq War. "Basically, Sinai has become a failed state, or failed region — ungoverned," says Jonathan Fighel, an Israeli counterterrorism expert who advised American forces in Iraq.

But since July 3, when Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi removed Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's elected, Islamist President, Sinai's militants have redirected their fire toward a familiar target: the state. The two have never hit it off. Mainland Egypt, defined by the Nile, regards Sinai as something apart and its population of 500,000 tribal Bedouin as second-class citizens. Cairo rules the peninsula by military governors and administers it not by bureaucrats but by police — or it did until the February 2011 day Hosni Mubarak stepped down as President, and the entire force simply vanished.

The resulting security vacuum was filled by men with guns. These included Bedouin — only too happy to operate their smuggling networks unmolested — and Islamist militants, who were the smugglers' best customers. The relationship goes a long way toward explaining the current fighting. In its northeastern corner, Sinai shares a border with Gaza — only for 13 km, but the distance is perforated with more than 1,000 tunnels. The tunnels allow Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza, to bypass Israel's control of the enclave. They smuggle in fuel, cigarettes, cars and arms. And they are an escape route for people, including militants too radical for Hamas. When the Palestinian group cracked down on fundamentalists who tried to establish an emirate in southern Gaza three years ago, the hardest core escaped through the tunnels to Sinai.

They found the desert wastes very hospitable. Sinai already was home to a substantial militant population, many of them Bedouin coaxed toward jihad by fundamentalist imams. When Mubarak fell, their ranks were swelled by radicals who had used the ensuing chaos to escape from prison — along with political prisoners, including Morsi himself. Ramzi Mowafi, a dentist who broke out of the same jail as Morsi, once worked as a battlefield medic for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Egyptian officials claim he's now emir — prince — among Sinai's bands of takfiris: militants intolerant of anyone who does not share their severe vision of Islam. The most prominent is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem), which mounted the complex attack on an Israeli border highway in August 2011. More recently, the group was behind a Sept. 5 car bombing on the motorcade of Egypt's Interior Minister, who survived.

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