What leads engineers to become jihadists?


In a review of Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Extremism and Education, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Ursula Lindsey writes: The second argument advanced by the authors to explain the “strange correlation” between studying engineering and joining a jihadist group is based on a comparative study of the political affinities of the members of radical left- and right-wing groups in the West. It shows that engineers are overrepresented among right-wing radicals generally (while humanities and social science students are more abundant among left-wing militants).

The authors suggest that Islamist and right-wing militants share a number of personality traits that have been shown to be associated with political conservatism. These include a propensity to feel disgust; a strong identification with an “in-group” and hostility toward those who don’t belong to it; and a discomfort with ambiguity and open-ended discussions (known in the literature as a “need for closure”). In Islamist circles, the authors write, “proneness to disgust is related to the strong reaction to perceived corruption of customs and a desire for social and sexual purity. In-group bias is related to a marked aversion for those who are different, be they immigrants, ethnic others, or infidels. The most multifaceted of these traits, need for closure (NFC), is related to a strong preference for hierarchy and social order and an aversion to change, which can reach the extreme of longing for a mythical past.”

Because of these underlying affinities, the authors speculate, some individuals may be “attracted to engineering as a discipline that provides concrete, unambiguous answers, and recoil from the open-ended project of natural science and the ambiguities of the humanities and social sciences.” Engineering students, “like followers of text-based religions, rely more strongly on answers that have already been given.” [Continue reading…]


Rethinking language: ‘Islamism’ as a dirty word

Jonathan Brown writes: Much depends on whether one thinks “Islamism” is a dirty word. This is true for policymakers in the West and leaders in the Muslim world alike. As with the moniker “The Muslim Brotherhood,” the word “Islamism” is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview (perhaps deepest fears?) of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality. Those who are suspicious of “Islamism” almost always imagine it, along with “The Muslim Brotherhood,” to be some durable transnational network, uniform in its most threatening characteristics wherever it appears.

Yet what was true before the Arab Spring, and what has emerged as even truer since its dismal failure, is that “Islamism” is local in both its shape and appeal. Analysis of Islamist movements continues, very sensibly, to be carried out on a country-by-country basis. This is because it is the ecosystem of the nation-state that continues to play the dominant role in shaping events. Elements of that system include the particular response of a government to Islamist opposition (Morocco’s accommodation of Islamist parties early on in the Arab Spring vs. Egypt’s return to Nasserist liquidation); the particular historical space for political involvement in a country (Kuwait’s relatively open political discourse versus Saudi Arabia’s closed discussions); the particular history of Islamist movements in that country (the Jordanian Brotherhood’s decades of subdued democratic activity versus Yemen’s Islah and its involvement in Yemen’s civil wars); or the impact of foreign policy considerations (for example, how the nationalist-cum-sectarian threat of Iran can trump Saudi Islamists’ objections).

Since the Arab Spring, Islamists, already nationally bound, have remained so. As Steven Brooke notes in his contribution to Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative: “A defining characteristic of Islamist groups has been their fundamental accommodation to the existence of current states.” He goes on to describe how “Islamist groups participated in political systems, adopted national discourses, and largely subjugated their activism to regime laws.” It is worth noting that this is essentially what distinguishes Jihadists from Islamists. Jihadists are those Muslim actors whose acts of violence proceed from their no longer considering themselves subject either to the regimes controlling the land in which they live or to the monopoly (and hence, accountability) of states on the use of violence.

A great irony since the Arab Spring has been that the truly transnational factors have not been “Islamism” but rather the clumsy and horribly damaging responses by numerous Arab regimes to its perceived threat. [Continue reading…]


The three manifestos that paved the way for ISIS

Fawaz A. Gerges writes: Islamic State’s Islamist utopia has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities almost everywhere, including in Brussels, where suicide bombers killed 32 people last month.

Its worldview, Salafi jihadism, is perhaps the most powerful weapon in its deadly arsenal. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi jihadism, or religious totalitarianism, has evolved into an influential social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, far-flung supporters, networks of recruiters and theorist enablers who provide members with theological sustenance.

Regardless of what happens to Islamic State, Salafi jihadism is here to stay and will likely gain more converts in politically polarized Arab and Muslim societies. The challenge is to shine light on this growing ideology and make sense of it.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his inner circle rely particularly on three Salafi jihadist manifestoes to justify what they do. The most well-known is “The Management of Savagery.” Circulated in PDF format under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Najji in the early 2000s, the manifesto provides a strategic road map of how to create an Islamic caliphate.

The second book is “Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad” by Abu Abdullah Muhajjer, which calls on Salafi jihadists to do whatever it takes to establish a purely unified Islamic state.

The final book is “The Essentials of Making Ready” (for Jihad) by Sayyid Imam Sharif, aka Abdel-Qader Ibn Abdel-Aziz or Dr. Fadl. This massive work focuses on the theological and practical meanings of jihad in Islam, and it has become a central text in jihadist training. Fadl admitted that he wrote the book in the late 1980s as a manual for training camps of what subsequently became known as Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]


The gap between jihadism and the prevailing linear narrative of radicalization

Kenan Malik writes: In Britain, the government’s flagship counterterrorism program, Prevent, includes surveillance of schoolchildren and college students. Official guidelines suggest that signs of radicalization include changing one’s “style of dress or personal appearance” or using “derogatory names or labels for another group.” Another sign, according to leaked teacher training materials, is an overt interest in Palestine or Syria. Among nearly 4,000 people identified last year as supposedly exhibiting signs of radicalization was a 4-year-old boy.

In France, mass closures of mosques and organizations suspected of enabling radicalization are underway.

Yet the evidence suggests that the concept is flawed and that such anti-jihadist measures are ineffective, even counterproductive. A secret British government memorandum leaked in 2010 dismissed the idea that there was “a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence.” A 2010 American study sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security similarly noted that radicalization “cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or ‘stages’ from sympathy to radicalism.”

Many studies show, perhaps counterintuitively, that people are not usually led to jihadist groups by religious faith. In 2008, a leaked briefing from Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, found that far from being religious zealots, many involved in terrorism were not particularly observant.

This view is confirmed by Marc Sageman, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a counterterrorism consultant. “At the time they joined, jihad terrorists were not very religious,” he observed. “They only became religious once they joined the jihad.”

The paradox is that the concept has become central to domestic counterterrorism policy even as government agencies discover it’s wrong. There is a gap between the reality of jihadism and a political desire for a simple narrative of radicalization.

In recent years, the official view of the process has become more nuanced. An F.B.I. website aimed at teenagers acknowledges that “no single reason explains why people become violent extremists.” Updated British strategy also accepts that “there is no single cause of radicalization.”

Yet the idea of a conveyor belt and telltale signatures of radicalization continue to be influential.

For many, though, the first steps toward terror are rarely taken for political or religious reasons. As the French sociologist Olivier Roy, the pre-eminent scholar of European jihadism, puts it, few terrorists “had a previous story of militancy,” either political or religious. Rather, they’re searching for something less definable: identity, meaning, respect. [Continue reading…]


How Denmark’s unexpected killer slipped through the net

Reuters reports: On Valentine’s Day, two weeks after his release from prison, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein walked up to a Copenhagen cafe hosting a debate on freedom of speech and sprayed it with bullets.

As a manhunt began, the 22-year-old went to ground. Nine hours later he launched a second assault, this time on a synagogue. Police eventually shot him dead, ending a rampage that left Danish filmmaker Finn Noergaard and security guard Dan Uzan dead, and six people wounded.

The attacks on Feb. 14 and 15 shocked Danes, who prize their country’s openness and sense of security. The country was further confounded when it emerged that prison officials had warned Denmark’s domestic intelligence agency that Hussein was at risk of being radicalized. If Denmark’s prison system – famed for its focus on rehabilitation and education over punishment – could not prevent a young man from turning into an Islamist killer, then perhaps it was not the model that many Danes believe it was. Parliament demanded an inquiry into the attacks and how both the prison system and the municipality had handled Hussein’s case.

In interviews with dozens of people, including a former cellmate and a source familiar with the as-yet unpublished official investigation, Reuters has learned new details about Hussein and his final months. His story seems to show how quickly people can be radicalized and how easily they can slip through the net, even a net as supportive and ostensibly secure as Denmark’s. [Continue reading…]


Are more Arabs becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme?

Koert Debeuf writes: With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.

Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.

The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.

The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.

Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists. [Continue reading…]


The human cost of jihad


What is the religion-terrorism connection?

John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed write: The religious language and symbolism that terrorists use tend to place religion at center stage. Many critics charge that global terrorism is attributable to Islam — a militant or violent religion — and terrorists who are particularly religious folks. For example, in a Washington Times commentary, author Sam Harris writes:

It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”. We are at war with Islam. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us. Every American should read the Koran and discover the relentlessness with which non-Muslims are vilified in its pages. The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy — and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.

Lawrence Auster of FrontPage magazine echoes this sentiment. He writes: “The problem is not ‘radical’ Islam but Islam itself, from which it follows that we must seek to weaken and contain Islam…”

What do the data say? Does personal piety correlate with radical views? The answer is no. Large majorities of those with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Gallup probed respondents further and actually asked those who condone and condemn extremist acts why they said what they did. The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, many of those who condemn terrorism cite humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. For example, one woman says, “Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world,” paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Quran.

On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condones the attacks of 9/11 cites the Quran for justification. Instead, this group’s responses are markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent says, “The US government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing”. The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety.

How then do we explain extremists’ religious rhetoric? As our data clearly demonstrate, religion is the dominant ideology in today’s Arab and Muslim world, just as secular Arab nationalism was in the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Palestinian Liberation Organization — from its inception, a staunchly secular group — used secular Palestinian nationalism in its rhetoric to justify acts of violence and to recruit. Just as Arab nationalism was used in the 1960s, today religion is used to justify extremism and terrorism.

Examining the link between religion and terrorism requires a larger and more complex context. Throughout history, close ties have existed among religion, politics, and societies. Leaders have used and hijacked religion to recruit members, to justify their actions, and to glorify fighting and dying in a sacred struggle. [Continue reading…]


The birth of an international jihadi social movement?

Clint Watts writes: The jihadi movement may have finally become what its original luminaries always wanted it to be – and in Paris of all places. The amorphous connections between the Charlie Hebdo attackers, the Kouachi brothers – who attributed their actions to “al Qaeda in Yemen” – and kosher market attacker Amedy Coulibali – who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a recently released online video – may reflect exactly what some early jihadi strategists intended: broad based jihad via a loose social movement. Terrorism researchers, obsessed with the writings of their academic adversary in jihad, Abu Musab al Suri, have for years suggested the social movement approach represented the ultimate vision of al Qaeda’s founding leadership.

This vision, however, does not seem to be shared by today’s al Qaeda chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, who for nearly a decade has sought to rein in the group’s disobedient affiliate in Iraq, which now also controls much of Syria in the guise of the Islamic State. Al Zawahiri also questioned the value of goofy self-recruits perpetrating attacks on behalf of al Qaeda without formal membership or direction from the group. Zawahiri’s resistance to freelance members may not be sufficient to quell the zeal witnessed by last week’s Charlie Hebdo attack. The manifestation of al Qaeda social movement theory may finally be realized by three forces: the growing development and global proliferation of social media, an unending call for jihad due to the intractable Syrian civil war, and the West’s failure to adapt to the wicked problem of non-state threats in a networked world.

Today’s jihadi threat, blended between al Qaeda and ISIS, networked by Facebook, and evolving based on conditions in hundreds of locations, produces attacks on three or more continents every day. On the surface this seems to indicate a stronger, unprecedented emerging jihadi threat to the West. Media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and others suggest as much. We analysts and followers of jihadi activity, though, often give terrorists too much credit. Many, if not most, Western jihadis are deeply troubled souls, at times more confused about their intentions and motivations than we are – Omar Hammami, Zachary Chesser, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau are three of many such examples. Counterterrorism pundits, myself included, try to tease out order from chaos. But today’s counterterrorism landscape does not lend itself to such linearity. [Continue reading…]


The Arab world has no counterforce to the murderers in our midst

Hisham Melhem writes: There is something malignant in the brittle world the Arab peoples inhabit. A murderous, fanatical, atavistic Islamist ideology espoused by Salafi Jihadist killers is sweeping that world and shaking it to its foundations, and the reverberations are felt in faraway continents. On the day the globalized wrath of these assassins claimed the lives of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris, it almost simultaneously claimed the lives of 38 Yemenis in their capital Sana’a, and an undetermined number of victims in Syria and Iraq. Like the Hydra beast of ancient Greece this malignancy has many heads: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Sunni Salafists and Shiite fanatics, armies and parties of God and militias of the Mahdi. This monstrous ideology has been terrorizing Arab lands long before it visited New York on 9/11, and its butchers assassinated Arab journalists and intellectuals years before committing the Paris massacre of French journalists, cartoonists and police officers.

The devil’s rejects of this ideology engage in wanton ritualistic beheadings while intoxicated with shouts of Allahu Akbar, oblivious to the fact that most of their victims are Muslims. They are perpetuating mass killings and rapes, uprooting ancient communities, declaring war on the great pre-Islamic civilizations and religions of the Fertile Crescent, and managing to turn large swaths of Syria and Iraq into earthly provinces of hell.

The time of the assassins is upon us. And the true tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world today is that there is no organized, legitimate counterforce to oppose these murderers—neither one of governments nor of “moderate” Islam. Nor is there any refuge for those who want to escape the assassins. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram now appears intent on governing

The Wall Street Journal reports: After seizing another village in Nigeria’s northeast last month, Boko Haram militants took a step in their transition from terror group to governing authority. They rounded up the men and ordered them to wear pants as the prophet Mohammed did, several inches above the ankle.

Otherwise, a Boko Haram commander told a crowd of men, they would be killed. “So we folded our trousers,” said Birgamus Kadams, a 26-year-old who was among the group of several hundred residents of Garkidi village the militant addressed.

Like 1.5 million other Nigerians, Mr. Kadams fled his home, in his case to the government-held town of Yola. But the world he left behind is changing.

After years of sowing chaos—bombing mosques, gunning up markets, kidnapping children, and leaving thousands dead, Boko Haram now appears intent on establishing order in towns it holds.

Fighters are imposing rigorous Islamic law in a bid to carve out a corner of a strategic, oil-rich country—just as its fellow jihadists in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are doing. [Continue reading…]


The context of the Eilat attacks and the threat to Gaza

Israelis who today for some reason feel safer because Gaza is getting bombed, might pause to consider this question: why would a member of the group that launched attacks outside Eilat yesterday — a group supposedly based in Gaza and sworn to the destruction of Israel — today blow himself up in an attack on Egyptian soldiers?

Many Israelis might avoid attempting to answer such a question and respond that it’s a jungle out there beyond Israel’s borders, as does commentator Yigal Walt, who writes:

The halcyon days of Oslo and dreams of a “New Middle East” and open borders between Israel and its neighbors are long gone; instead, we are facing a Mideast that is crueler and more dangerous than ever. As it did in the face of Palestinian murderousness in the past decade, Israel’s government must embark on a national project aimed at building large, effective fences around much of the country.

The notion of fences may be unsavory to many of us, but ignoring reality would not be a wise move. Should we fail to protect our villa by all means necessary, we shall find ourselves increasingly vulnerable to the Arab jungle around us.

As for those who have an interest in evidence, rather than taking comfort in deeply ingrained prejudice, the evidence suggests that the men who attacked Israelis yesterday and Egyptians today are in conflict with both states. More than likely, this has much less to do with Gaza or the Palestinian national cause than it has with the aspirations of radical groups based in the Sinai.

Those responsible for maintaining Israel’s security quickly claimed they knew exactly who was behind yesterday’s attacks in Eilat and duly dispatched the Israeli air force to rain down missiles on Gaza. No one explained why, if Israeli intelligence was so good, they had not prevented the attacks. Even so, the domestically perceived legitimacy of a security state depends less on its ability to thwart terrorism than its willingness to make a timely show of force. Indeed, the occasional tragedy has obvious political utility. The attacks in Eilat serve to remind Israelis that the state created as a safe haven for Jews can only remain safe so long as everyone remains afraid.

The problem with fear though, is that it inhibits curiosity — a population that lives in fear has a visceral need for security that overrides the cognitive need for understanding. Once hit, the reflex to hit back marginalizes the need to understand who, how and why.

In attempting to understand attacks that took place on the edge of the Sinai, the likelihood is that the explanation about who launched the attacks and why, would be found not elsewhere but in the Sinai itself.

The day before the attacks, CNN reported:

The Egyptian army and police are cracking down in an “anti-terror” operation in the Sinai area of Egypt, state-owned media reported on Tuesday, as reports emerge of Osama bin Laden’s doctor surfacing in the area.

Police said they found hand grenades, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition in the operation that targets Sinai “terror cells” suspected in attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel and a police station in the border town of el-Arish.

One person was killed and 12 were arrested on Monday, the first day of the operation, said Hazem al-Maadawi, a police officer involved in the offensive.

Citing an unnamed security official, state news agency EgyNews said authorities are targeting 15 more people who participated in attacks at an el-Arish police station — some of whom are members of the extremist Jaish el-Islam group, which is affiliated with al Qaeda.

The crackdown comes amid new developments on the whereabouts of a bin Laden associate.

Ramzi Mahmoud Al Mowafi, the doctor of the late al Qaeda leader, escaped from a Cairo prison during the Egyptian revolution earlier this year and has resurfaced in the country’s North Sinai area, an official said.

“Al Mowafi, also known among his fellow Jihadists as the ‘chemist,’ escaped from a maximum security prison in Cairo on January 30 while serving a life sentence,” Maj. Yaser Atia from Egyptian General Security told CNN Monday. According to prison records, Al Mowafi was sentenced to life for a “military case” — but more details were not immediately known.

Bin Laden’s longtime personal doctor and an explosives expert, Al Mowafi was born in Egypt in 1952. He left for Afghanistan to join al Qaeda, according to the data listed in his prison records.

“Al Mowafi was seen in Sinai by several Jihadist(s) according to witness testimonials,” Gen. Sameh Seif Al Yezen said. “I know he is very dangerous and that he had set up his own laboratory in Tora Bora with bin Laden. A full report will be published on this matter in the upcoming week.”

A general in Egypt’s intelligence service, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media, told CNN that “Al Mowafi surfaced in el-Arish and communicated with several ‘terrorists’ from the Egyptian Takfir wal-Hijra and the Palestinian Islamic Army.”

Takfir wal-Hijra is a militant Islamist group.

The general added, “Al Qaeda is present in Sinai, mainly in the area of Sakaska close to Rafah.”

Andrew McGregor provides more historical background on the region.

As the meeting point of Asia and Africa, the Sinai has always been important to Egypt’s security. Though the Sinai has been, with brief interruptions, a part of Egypt in one form or another since the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty (c. 3100 – 2890 B.C.E.), it has also been regarded as something apart from the Egypt of the Nile and Delta, a remote wasteland useful for mineral exploitation and strategic reasons but otherwise best left (outside of Egyptian security outposts) to the unruly Semitic and Bedouin tribes that have called the Sinai home since ancient times. The effect of these policies is that the Sinai Bedouin form only a tiny minority of Egypt’s total population, but retain an absolute majority in the Sinai.

In recent decades, however, Cairo has attempted to impose the deeply infiltrated security regime that existed in the rest of the country up until last January’s revolution. Many Bedouin involved in traditional smuggling activities found themselves in Egyptian prisons serving long sentences in often brutal conditions. The attempt to impose a security regime on the freedom-minded Bedouin led to a greater alienation of the tribesmen from the state, and the Egyptian uprising presented an opportunity to quickly roll back decades of attempts to impose state control on life in the Sinai. Most importantly, it opened the door for those influenced by the Salafist movements of neighboring Gaza to begin operations.

There are roughly 15 Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. In the politically sensitive northeast region (including al-Arish and the border area) the most important are the Sawarka and Rumaylat. There are also significant Palestinian populations in al-Arish and the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid.

Local Bedouin took the opportunity of storming the Sinai’s prisons, freeing an unknown number of Bedouin smugglers and Palestinian militants. In nearly all cases they were unopposed by prison staff. One of the escapees was Ali Abu Faris, who was convicted for involvement in the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings that killed 88 people in 2005. Others freed included Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners convicted more recently of planning terrorist operations in Egypt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009). Since emptying the prisons the tribesmen have warned the police to stay out of the main smuggling centers on penalty of death and the region has been effectively operating without any type of government.

But even if Israel faces a threat emanating from Egypt, Gaza presents a more convenient target of retaliation — even if this now opens a new risk of escalation.

Tony Karon writes:

There was a time when attacks such as those in southern Israel on Thursday might have been assumed to be the work of Hamas, out to torpedo the peace process. But there is no peace process to torpedo; it sank without trace some years ago without any help from Hamas. And Hamas is facing a potential crisis because its Syrian patron, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, may be on its way out of power, jeopardizing the status of the Hamas political leadership and headquarters in Damascus. The situation in Syria, and the new possibilities opened up by the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the growing influnence of Hamas’ Egyptian founding organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, give Hamas nothing to gain and much to lose by making life difficult for the military leadership in Cairo. Attacking Israel from Egyptian soil makes little sense for Hamas given its current political and diplomatic needs.

And a new crisis in Gaza hardly suits the agenda of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority: They plan next month to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines, and it hardly helps their case to have the fact that they have no control over events in Gaza — a substantial part of the state they are claiming — so graphically demonstrated.

But for a bit player like the PRC [Popular Resistance Committees] — if, indeed, it was responsible — or any other smaller groups challenging Hamas’ authority and pressing their own claims, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February and the weakening of his police state created a new opportunity to slip the shackles of Hamas’ cease-fire by leaving Gaza and launching an attack from Sinai. As our own Abigail Hauslohner has reported, Sinai has become a playground for Bedouin smugglers and various jihadists since Mubarak’s fall, with salafist groups (who share an ideology with al-Qaeda) believed to have been behind repeat attacks on the natural gas pipeline that runs through Sinai to Israel.

Thursday’s attacks came just days after 1,000 Egyptian troops launched an operation in northern Sinai against Islamist cells believed to be inspired by al-Qaeda, which had challenged Hamas in Gaza. Israel gave its approval for the operation — the 1979 Camp David Agreement requires Israeli approval for Egypt to deploy significant numbers of troops in Sinai — and so did Hamas.

The fall of Mubarak had created a vacuum in Sinai into which some of Hamas’ rivals have been able to move to provoke a confrontation that Hamas had been trying to avoid. But once the Israelis are bombing Gaza, Hamas may find it difficult or impolitic to restrain its own armed wing, or other groups from firing at Israel. So the danger of escalation becomes more acute. On the Israeli side, too. Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to hint that Israel may be planning a more sustained attack on Gaza, warning on Thursday that Israel sees the territory as “a source of terror, and we will take full-force action against them.”