A jihadist group calling itself Al Murabitoon has released a video featuring a former Egyptian special forces officer named Hisham Ali Ashmawi (also known as Abu Omar al Muhajir al Masri) as its emir. He is pictured in his Egyptian military uniform (See the screen shot above.) Ashmawi’s organization is loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
Al Murabitoon’s video, which was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, opens with a video clip of Zawahiri saying that the jihadists “must engage in the battle of rhetoric just as” they engage “in the battle of arms and ammunition.”
Ashmawi then speaks in Arabic for the remainder of the production, calling on Muslims to wage jihad and “confront” their “enemy.” He connects Al Murabitoon’s fight to the jihadists’ global cause, citing the “wounds” supposedly suffered in Burma, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
Al Murabitoon’s emir focuses much of his remarks on his homeland. “Egypt is overpowered by the new pharaoh, [President Abdel Fattah el] Sisi, and by his soldiers and sorcerers, so that he can follow the path of his ancestor Pharaoh,” Ashmawi says, according to SITE’s translation. He accuses Sisi of using “the most severe forms of torture and affliction against the Muslims” and employing “the magic of media for his lies and deceit [to change] the religion and facts in the minds of the people.”
Accused of taking part in attacks on Egyptian officials
Ashmawi reportedly served in the Egyptian military until either 2009 or 2011 (There is a discrepancy in Egyptian accounts.)
Egyptian officials have accused him of being involved in a string of high-profile attacks since he joined the jihadists. The Long War Journal’s analysis of those operations reveals that he was likely once a member of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which was affiliated with al Qaeda prior to a series of leadership losses.
ABM’s surviving Sinai leadership pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, in November 2014. But part of the organization remained loyal to al Qaeda and it is possible that Ashmawi represents this faction.
In late June, Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, was killed by a car bomb in Cairo. Thus far, no jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the assassination. But Egyptian authorities say that Ashmawi was behind the operation. Barakat is the most senior government official to be killed since the jihadist insurgency was launched inside Egypt in 2013, according to The New York Times.
Barakat was not the first Egyptian official targeted by Ashmawi. He is also suspected of masterminding the attempted assassination of Mohammad Ibrahim, who was then Egypt’s interior minister, in 2013. The plot against Ibrahim reveals a number of intriguing connections between Ashmawi and al Qaeda’s global network.
A suicide bomber attempted to kill Ibrahim on Sept. 5, 2013. ABM claimed responsibility just days later in a statement posted online. ABM followed up with a video honoring the would-be assassin, Walid Badr. The video honoring Badr made it clear that ABM considered itself part of al Qaeda’s network at the time.
Like Ashmawi, Badr had been an Egyptian military officer before defecting to the jihadists’ cause. They both waged jihad in Syria as well.
According to ABM’s biography for Badr, he fought in Syria “until Allah destined him to return to Egypt once again, to fulfill his wish that he always wanted in carrying out a martyrdom-seeking operation.” Egyptian authorities also connected Badr to a cadre of jihadists who were trained and fought for the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and other groups.
According to Al Watan, an Egyptian news site, Egypt’s interior ministry alleges that Ashmawi traveled to Syria in April 2013 to receive training “on manufacturing explosives and combat operations.” This means he was trained in Syria just months prior to the attempt on Ibrahim’s life.
Egyptian officials have also said that Mohammed Jamal, an imprisoned al Qaeda operative, has admitted that Badr received training in one of Jamal’s camps in the Sinai. Jamal was attempting to form his own branch of al Qaeda in Egypt and Libya prior to his arrest in late 2012.
Assuming that Ashmawi colluded with Badr in the plot against Ibrahim, as is alleged, then this raises the possibility that Ashmawi worked with Jamal as well.
Al Murabitoon in North and West Africa
It is not clear what relationship, if any, the group has to the other “Al Murabitoon,” an al Qaeda-affiliated organization that operates in North and West Africa. Al Murabitoon was the name given to the joint venture formed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Mulathameen Brigade and Ahmed al Tilemsi’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) after they merged in August 2013.
Their combined entity was led by another Egyptian, Abu Bakr al Muhajir, who was a representative of al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Al Muhajir was killed by French forces in April 2014. Tilemsi, who served as Al Murabitoon’s emir after al Muhajir’s demise, was killed during a French special forces raid in December 2014.
But Belmokhtar is still alive, despite American-led attempts to locate and kill him. Al Jazeera reported earlier today that Belmokhtar has released his own statement saying that he is now in charge of his Al Murabitoon. If the statement is genuine, then this suggests there are two Al Murabitoon groups. But there is some uncertainty as of this writing.