The Egyptian interior ministry announced earlier today that a senior figure in the Islamic State’s so-called Sinai “province,” Ashraf Ali Hassanein al Gharabli, was killed during a shootout with police in Cairo.
The Egyptian government alleges that al Gharabli was involved in a string of attacks, including a car bombing outside of the Italian consulate in Cairo in July, the beheading of a Croatian man in August, and the murder of an American named William Henderson in 2014. Al Gharabli was also allegedly responsible for a number of attacks on Egyptian officials, including an assassination attempt on former interior minister Mohammad Ibrahim in 2013.
On at least four occasions, the Islamic State and its Sinai “province” have claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian airliner on October 31. The claim has not been confirmed, but both US and UK officials say it is increasingly likely that the jihadists placed a bomb on board the jet. More than 220 passengers and crew members were killed.
Even without official confirmation of the Sinai “province’s” responsibility, Egyptian officials are undoubtedly anxious to claim a victory against the group. Therefore, from the Egyptian government’s perspective, al Gharabli’s reported death could not come at more opportune time.
One detail in al Gharabli’s biography is especially important for understanding the evolution of the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai. According to an Egyptian “police official” interviewed by Agence France Presse, al Gharabli was once the “right-hand man” of Hisham al Ashmawy,” a feared former [Egyptian] commando who is believed to have spearheaded a string of bombings and assassinations in the capital.”
Ashmawy and al Gharabli were both members of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), a jihadist organization that swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in November 2014. ABM was quickly rebranded as one of the Islamic State’s “provinces.” But while al Gharabli decided to join Baghdadi’s cause, Ashmawy remained loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
Egyptian officials have accused Ashmawy and his former deputy, al Gharabli, of taking part in some of the same plots. For example, Egypt previously alleged that Ashmawy masterminded the attempted killing of interior minister Mohammad Ibrahim. [See LWJ report, Former Egyptian special forces officer leads Al Murabitoon.]
Some of the other acts al Gharabli is alleged to have committed were also carried out when both he and Ashmawy were in ABM’s ranks. Although the Sinai “province” claimed credit for killing William Henderson in December 2014, he was actually murdered months later. At the time of Henderson’s death, ABM had not yet officially become part of the Islamic State.
ABM was clearly tied to al Qaeda prior to its defection to Baghdadi’s “caliphate.” And Ashmawy’s story demonstrates that not all of ABM became part of the Islamic State’s network. Indeed, as The Long War Journal has noted in the past, credible reports indicate that part of ABM remained loyal to al Qaeda. In particular, a cadre of jihadists based in the Nile Valley decided to stay in al Qaeda’s camp.
Jund al Islam, which is based in the Sinai, is likely part of al Qaeda’s network. And still another jihadist group in Egypt, Ajnad Misr (“Soldiers of Egypt”), broke off from ABM as well. The leader of Ajnad Misr, Hammam Attiyah, was killed earlier this year. Both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) eulogized Attiyah, indicating that he was likely an al Qaeda operative.
Ashmawy is a key figure in the pro-al Qaeda contingent that was once part of ABM. In July, he announced the formation of a new organization named Al Murabitoon in a video that featured clips of Ayman al Zawahiri. Ashmawy’s continued loyalty to al Qaeda drew harsh criticism from the Islamic State’s supporters. In August, he was included in the Islamic State’s “Wanted Dead” campaign. Baghdadi’s followers said that Ashmawy was working to counter the “caliphate’s” influence, and that he had fled to Derna, Libya. Egyptian officials subsequently confirmed that Ashmawy operates out of Derna at least part of the time.
In early October, Ashmawy was publicly identified as the “most dangerous” man on Egypt’s most wanted list. The Egyptian government accuses him of masterminding the assassination of Hisham Barakat, the country’s chief prosecutor, in late June.
The legacy of ABM is such that while the organization dissolved into competing groups, it spawned multiple threats to the Egyptian state. After all, before going on to represent rival jihadist organizations, al Gharabli and Ashmawy were once ABM commanders.