Hisham Ali Ashmawi, as pictured in a new message released on March 3.
Hisham Ali Ashmawi, a former Egyptian special forces officer who is openly loyal to al Qaeda, released an audio message earlier this month in which he called on scholars to support the jihadists’ cause.
Ashmawi, also known as Abu Umar al Muhajir, is the leader of Al Murabitoon, an al Qaeda-linked group that operates in the Sinai and elsewhere in North Africa.
Ashmawi claimed Egyptian Muslims are experiencing a “tragedy” under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s rule. The “ulema” (Islamic scholars) should “incite the youth and remind them it is now our duty to expel the invaders from the abode of Islam and wage jihad against the criminal El Sisi, his soldiers, and supporters,” he added, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Ashmawi argued that the mujahideen cannot be victorious unless the “ulema” and sheikhs support them. The jihadists’ “battles…to settle the conflict between truth and falsehood will not continue, nor be successful,” without the scholars’ help in mobilizing the people.
Ashmawi’s 23-minute audio statement, which was disseminated via social media on March 3, is likely intended to influence Egyptian clerics and rally them to al Qaeda’s cause in the Sinai and elsewhere. His message is accompanied by a still photo of him dressed in military garb with his face obscured.
Al Murabitoon attempted to tie Ashmawi’s latest message to the jihadists’ conflict with Israel. Images from Jerusalem are shown at the end of production. (A screen shot can be seen on the right.) And the words, “O Aqsa, we are coming,” are flashed on the screen. This is a reference to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
The first message attributed to Ashmawi was released in July 2015, when he announced his leadership role in Al Murabitoon. [See LWJ report, Former Egyptian special forces officer leads Al Murabitoon.]
It is not entirely clear how Ashmawi’s group fits into al Qaeda’s network as another al Qaeda-linked organization, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also calls itself Al Murabitoon and operates in North Africa. Ashmawi is likely responsible for at least some of al Qaeda’s efforts inside Egypt, and he may be al Qaeda’s overall emir inside the country. The US targeted Belmokhtar in an airstrike last June, but his fate remains uncertain. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Murabitoon, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have all issued statements denying that Belmokhtar was killed.
Ashmawi was once a leading figure in Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ABM was subsequently rebranded as the Islamic State’s Sinai “province” and is waging a prolific campaign against Egyptian security forces. The arm of the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner last October.
Unlike his comrades in ABM, however, Ashmawi did not join the Islamic State’s expanding global network. Instead, he remained faithful to al Qaeda.
In August 2015, the Islamic State’s supporters claimed that Ashmawi was in Libya and assisting the “caliphate’s” jihadists rivals. Baghdadi’s loyalists even released a “wanted dead” poster for the former Egyptian military officer, underscoring the Islamic State’s enmity for him. [See LWJ report, The Islamic State’s ‘wanted dead’ list in Libya.]
Egyptian officials have accused Ashmawi of being involved in a string of high-profile attacks since he left the military and joined the jihadists.
Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, was killed by a car bomb in Cairo in June 2015. Thus far, no jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the assassination. Egyptian authorities initially said Ashmawi was responsible. But Egypt’s interior minister, Maj. Gen. Magdi Abdel Ghaffar, alleged earlier this month that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas were actually behind the operation. Ghaffar’s claims drew skepticism, however, as he contradicted earlier assessments offered to the public and he didn’t provide concrete evidence to back up his allegations.
Previous Egyptian press accounts have also claimed that Ashmawi is suspected of masterminding the attempted assassination of Mohammad Ibrahim, who was then Egypt’s interior minister, in September 2013. As The Long War Journal previously reported, the plot against Ibrahim revealed a number of intriguing connections between Ashmawi and al Qaeda’s global network. Walid Badr, the suicide bomber who attempted to kill Ibrahim, also once served in the Egyptian military. Both Badr and Ashmawi reportedly fought in Syria under the banner of Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda.