Hesham Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special operations officer who ascended to the upper ranks of several prominent militant groups and carried out some of the most deadly attacks on Egyptian security in recent years, was captured in a Libyan National Army (LNA) pre-dawn security raid on Monday in the Maghar neighborhood of Derna.
The capture of Ashmawy, who sat at the head of the Al-Qaeda militant affiliate Al-Mourabitoun, is a feather in the cap for Egypt and its main military ally in Libya, the LNA, which besieged the city of Derna for over two years to curtail what it claimed were “terrorist” elements. In a June 2017 press conference, LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari stated that Ashmawy was in Derna, where he was conducting operations alongside other militant organizations and figures, among them militant commander Omar Rifai Sorour.
Sorour, who was also known as Abu Abdallah al-Masri, was considered the legitimate leader of a number of militant groups operating in Libya loyal to Al-Qaeda. He also played a central role in putting an end to Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants defecting to join the Islamic State, according to a Libyan militant arrested following the Wahat Road attack that Ashmawy led in October 2017.
Following the Wahat attack and under the banner of preventing military incursions into Egypt, the Egyptian Air Force conducted airstrikes in Derna in October 2017, Egyptian sources told Mada Masr at the time. Earlier this year, the LNA launched a full-scale attack on the city, ending the long-standing stalemate. The military offensive, however, faced criticism for endangering civilians. While the LNA declared the city “liberated” on June 29, Ashmawy’s capture on Monday points to the fact that some areas of Derna have remained beyond the LNA’s grasp.
With Ashmawy in custody, Egypt and Libya must decide how to proceed with the notorious fugitive. Mesmeri told Mada Masr in a phone interview that the prominent militant has been transported to a safe location where he will be interrogated. Despite reports that Egypt had called on Libyan authorities to extradite Ashmawy, the spokesperson conducted a televised interview late on Monday in which he affirmed that the Libyan judiciary will decide his fate, without clarifying whether the Libyan authorities will hand him over to Egypt.
An LNA military source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, reaffirms what Mesmeri said during the interview: the Libyan side will continue the investigation and will not hand Ashmawy over until after it has collected the necessary information and obtained permissions from its general command.
The lead Libyan investigator refused to comment on the case when contacted by Mada Masr.
The specific details of the raid that led to Ashmawy’s capture remain sparse. However, some important details pertaining to other militants known to be close to him have emerged.
In a statement released on Monday morning, Mesmari said that the militant figure had been in the company of Sorour’s wife and sons when he was captured. While there have been reports that Sorour was killed in an air raid on his hideout in Derna in June, his body was never found. In the Monday night television interview, Mesmeri said that Ashmawy and Sorour’s wife confirmed that he had been killed.
Ashmawy is associated with some of Egypt’s most violent militant attacks, including that on the Farafra checkpoint in July 2014, which resulted in the deaths of 29 Armed Forces officers. He was also responsible for the Wahat Road attack in October 2017, in which at least 11 officers were killed, most of them National Security Agency officers in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Interior at the time.
Bookended by Monday’s arrest, Ashmawy’s venture into militancy had a drastically different origin: He was once an infantry officer in the Egyptian Armed Forces, later becoming a member of the elite Thunderbolt special operations unit.
He was transferred to an administrative role after investigations carried out by the Military Intelligence Directorate into an incident involving a mosque imam who reportedly made a mistake while reciting Quran, angering Ashmawy and provoking an altercation.
Ashmawy’s hard-line religious tendencies persisted. He distributed handbooks by Salafist sheikhs to his colleagues in service, which led to the termination of his military career, following a military trial in 2012.
Security intelligence reported Ashmawy’s travels to Syria in 2013 and his participation in the Syrian war with Jabhat al-Nusra, which was at the time affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Several months later, Ashmawy’s name appeared in the midst of escalating terrorist attacks in North Sinai and some of the Delta provinces, especially Cairo and Daqahlia. His role was also evident in the operations of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes militant group, before it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and refashioned itself as the Province of Sinai in late 2014.
The most obvious indication of the importance of Ashmawy’s role in escalating militant operations inside Egypt was given by security services one day after the failed assassination attempt on former Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim near his home in Nasr City in September 2013. The day after the failed attempt, security forces reported a raid on Ashmawy’s residence in Nasr City, on the basis that he was using a mosque owned by his family to propagate extremist ideas. Forces raiding his residence reportedly confiscated ammunition and documents that proved his involvement in the assassination attempt.
At the time, there was speculation that Ashmawy was responsible for organizing Ansar Beit al-Maqdes activities in the Delta and Nile Valley, where attacks against police officers, security directorates and military posts had escalated.
Before declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes were behind the targeting of the security directorate in Daqahlia, which was attacked twice, in July and December 2013. They also targeted a Military Intelligence Directorate building in Ismailia in October 2013, a Central Security Forces camp in December 2013 and the Cairo Security Directorate in January 2014. The director of the Interior Ministry’s technical office, Major General Mohamed al-Saeed, was also assassinated by the group in January 2014, as well as Colonel Mohamed Mabrouk in November 2013. The group also attacked a large number of checkpoints and security installations belonging to the Ministry of Interior.
Differences between Ashmawy and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes began to surface in 2014. The organization claimed responsibility for the Farafra operation, in a propaganda tape entitled “the Ansar hit” and promised to include footage of the operation in the next propaganda tape. A few weeks later, the tape was released and included footage from several operations, with the exception of the Farafra operation. Between the first and second tape, the organization pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi accepted their allegiance, ordering them to drop their old name and call themselves the Province of Sinai, a move that led to Ashmawy’s dissociation with the newly established Islamic State affiliate.
Ashmawy later appeared in a video, in which he called himself Abu Omar al-Muhajir. He claimed responsibility for the Farafra attack, confirming his new title as the leader of a new group known as Al-Mourabitoun.
Ashmawy vanished from the scene in mid-2014, after leading the Farafra operation. News began to circulate that he had been injured and had moved to eastern Libya — where Islamist groups loyal to Al-Qaeda were on the rise — where he was receiving treatment. Militants, Armed Forces personnel and researchers predicted that he played a central role in militant activity in the country, ranging from command of military operations by groups deployed in Libya, to his participation in communications between armed groups in order to recruit militants frustrated by Islamic State’s failed extremist efforts.
News of Ashmawy became scarce until the Wahat Road incident. Reports of similar operations until then spoke of a new group operating under the Islamic State with the name of the Soldiers of the Caliphate.
In December 2017, a military court sentenced Ashmawy in absentia and 10 others to death on terrorist-related charges in connection to a number of terrorist attacks, including the attack on security forces in the area of Dabaa in August 2014, the assassination of police officer Karim Fouad in Egypt’s north coast in March 2015, the bombing of the Italian Consulate in Cairo in July 2015, the attack on the Farafra security checkpoint in Egypt’s Western Desert and the bombing of a national security building in Shubra.