Islamists over the weekend released a tape showing fighters from the Al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to down an Egyptian helicopter operating in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the first time the group has demonstrated the capability to successfully deploy SAMs. David Barnett, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the video and read the attack alongside a late 2013 declaration by Ansar Jerusalem to wage a protracted war against Egyptian forces. For its part, TIME’s Karl Vick contextualized the strike as one of several recent incidents in which sophisticated weapons have been deployed by jihadists near Israel’s borders.
If the militants have more surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) they could endanger commercial airliners landing and taking off many times a day at Eilat, the Israeli resort city that sits on the tiny sliver of the Red Sea coast inside Israel. The flight approach to the Eilat airport comes uncomfortably close to Sinai foothills on the Egyptian side of the border. Ground-to-ground missiles are sometimes fired from the Sinai toward Eilat, including a couple of Grad rockets seven days ago.
Vick outlined a number of scenarios that would mitigate such risk, the most straightforward being an Egyptian move to secure the territory. Egyptian security officials have for months sought to do exactly that, albeit with uneven success. Moves by the Obama administration to freeze military aid to Cairo due to the army’s ouster of the country’s former president Mohammed Morsi were criticized for potentially interfering with Egypt’s efforts to uproot the jihadist infrastructure in the Sinai.