CAIRO — Egypt’s leaders have agreed to cooperate on counterterrorism and have a special responsibility to ensure security in the Sinai Peninsula, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.
Panetta, speaking after a meeting in Cairo with President Mohammed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said the Egyptian leaders pledged to counter al-Qaida, which U.S. and Israeli officials say may be gaining a toehold in the 23,000- square-mile peninsula wedged between Egypt and Israel.
The State Department identified the Sinai as a “an area of concern” in the annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011 released today in Washington.
“A number of loosely knit militant groups have formed in the Sinai, with some claiming ties and allegiance to al-Qaida — though no formal links have been discovered,” the report said.
The area has seen a rise in violence that authorities have blamed in part on militants linked to al-Qaida as well as Bedouins, the nomadic people who live in the Sinai. The report also describes attempts by Iran to use the Sinai to smuggle rockets to militants in Gaza for use against Israel.
“Egypt’s Northern Sinai region remained a base for smuggling arms and explosives into Gaza, as well as a transit point for Palestinian extremists,” the report said. “The smuggling of humans, weapons, cash and other contraband through the Sinai into Israel and Gaza created criminal networks with possible ties to terrorist groups in the region.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned during a July 16 visit to Israel that “there is the potential of jihadists and terrorists taking up an operation base in Sinai.” Clinton said she had discussed the issue at length during a visit to Egypt immediately before her stop in Israel.
“We think this is a dangerous situation for both Egypt and Israel,” Clinton said during an interview with CNN. “It is also dangerous for Americans. We have Americans who are part of the multinational force that observes the continuation” of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. “We’ve had a few concerns about their safety.”
In August 2011, gunmen operating out of Sinai launched an attack near the southern Israeli city of Eilat, killing eight Israelis and injuring about 40 people in the most significant act of terrorism in the country since 2008, according to the State Department report. While responding to the incident, Israeli soldiers killed six Egyptian border police.
Iran has unsuccessfully tried to smuggle an anti-ship cruise missile into Gaza, the report said.
Meanwhile, Hamas retained its grip on Gaza, where it continued to stockpile weapons that pose a threat to Israelis. Egyptian officials have also intercepted numerous shipments of weapons, including rockets, smuggled in from Libya and believed headed to Sinai. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.
The report also said the Sinai gas pipeline to Israel was bombed 10 times during 2011, forcing production shutdowns. A group that called itself Ansar al-Jihad claimed responsibility for the Eilat attack and two of the pipeline attacks, the report said
Panetta is on a trip through the Middle East. He met with Tunisia’s new leaders and has stops in Israel and Jordan.