Why the capture of Egypt’s most wanted militant is such a big deal
CAIRO - The capture of a former Egyptian Army officer who became the country’s most wanted terrorist could help Cairo and the eastern Libyan government that apprehended him glean information about militant groups and terrorism financing.
Hisham al-Ashmawy, a high-profile Egyptian militant leader, was arrested October 8 by the National Libyan Army in the eastern Libyan city of Derna, where he was said to be commanding an amalgam of al-Qaeda-linked groups.
Ashmawy, 40, had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Egyptian Army’s Special Operations division before being fired in 2012 for extremist views. He was arrested in the company of the wife and children of another Egyptian terrorist, Mohamed Rifae Soroor, who was killed by the Libyan Army in 2017.
The arrest of Ashmawy, known as Egypt’s most wanted terrorist, could be a major blow to terrorist groups in eastern Libya, western Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Ashmawy was a key figure in Egyptian terrorism and is likely to have valuable intelligence for Egyptian authorities.
“This is the most important terrorist to be arrested in a decade,” said retired Egyptian Army General Hamdy Bekheit. “He amounts to a treasure trove of information about terrorism, the hideouts of terrorist groups, their funding and the sources of that funding.”
Ashmawy joined the Egyptian Military College in 1996, graduating four years later and was assigned to an infantry division. He served in Sinai and was viewed favourably by superiors to the point that he was selected to attend training courses abroad.
Described as “fearless” and “intelligent’ by colleagues, he was also known as a non-conformist. Ashmawy saw combat in the Sinai Peninsula but, in a few years, he would fight on the other side.
If there is a defining moment in Ashmawy’s transformation from soldier to terrorist, it is probably the death of his father in 2005. He was unable to attend his father’s funeral and turned to an increasingly extremist reading of Islam.
“This [his father’s death] left a huge psychological effect on him,” Tamer al-Shahawy, a retired Egyptian intelligence general, said.
Egyptian military intelligence was increasingly concerned about Ashmawy’s views and, military records indicate, Ashmawy was in trouble for distributing religious books and pamphlets to colleagues and subordinates.
In 2011, during the protests against President Hosni Mubarak, Ashmawy assaulted an army mosque preacher as he delivered a sermon. He was referred to the psychiatric division of a military hospital. Ashmawy was forcibly discharged from the army in 2012 over concerns about his religious views.
Islamist President Muhammad Morsi was ousted in July 2013 after a year in power by a military-backed popular uprising. Ashmawy is known to have joined pro-Morsi protests, including the sit-in at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in eastern Cairo, which turned violent and hundreds were killed.
Ashmawy returned to the Sinai Peninsula and joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a group of disgruntled Bedouins and allied jihadist Salafists from the Gaza Strip. In August 2012, it attempted to steal an army vehicle and cross into Israel from the North Sinai city of Rafah, killing 16 Egyptian border guards as they broke their fast during Ramadan.
With his insider knowledge about the military, Ashmawy became Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’s training officer and eventually planned attacks on his former comrades.
In September 2013, Ashmawy and other members of the group tried to assassinate Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa in a car bombing in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City. Although the attack failed, it shocked many Egyptians because direct assassination attempts on an official in Cairo were viewed as impossible.
Ashmawy and many fighters loyal to him split from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in 2014 when most of the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State. He moved to Egypt’s Western Desert and formed al-Mourabitoun, which became an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Al-Mourabitoun specialised in targeting Egyptian soldiers and army positions, including an attack in mid-July 2014 on a post in Farafra Oasis, near the Libyan border, that left 21 soldiers dead.
The group carried out 55 attacks in Egypt over four years, most of which were masterminded in Libya where Ashmawy is believed to have spent most of his time. The attacks included one on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims travelling from the central province of Minya to a Western Desert monastery, which resulted in the death of 29 people, including children.
Ashmawy is being interrogated by eastern Libya’s intelligence officials but it is believed that he will be handed over to Egyptian custody.