CAIRO – As a special forces officer in the Egyptian Army, Hisham al-Ashmawy trained in the desert, learning camouflage, survival techniques and how to hunt the enemy in rough terrain. Now he has turned militant and uses that training to help fellow jihadis fight the government.
Ashmawy’s background makes him a potent figure among Islamist fighters, who President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi say pose an existential threat to Egypt. “Ashmawy is the most dangerous terrorist we face,” an Egyptian National Security official said. “He is the mastermind and executor.”
Security officials say the former military man, whose allegiance has switched from the Islamic State group to al-Qaida, has carried out some of the most high-profile attacks in Egypt. These include the attempted assassination of former Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in May 2013, and the killing in June this year of Egypt’s top public prosecutor in a car bomb.
With Egypt holding parliamentary elections on Sunday, Ashmawy’s story illustrates the complexities of the security challenge facing the country. Egypt has struggled with Islamist sympathizers in the military since 1981, when army officers assassinated President Anwar Sadat.
Today the government, run by a former military man, hopes the elections will help bring stability. People like Ashmawy challenge that.
Ashmawy has spent the past decade using what he knows about the security forces against them. He moved to the Libyan town of Derna, a hotbed of Islamist radicalism near the border with Egypt, about a year ago, arriving in a truck surrounded by gunmen, according to local resident Ehab Senousi.
In Derna, out of reach of Egyptian law enforcement, he runs an al-Qaida cell, say several Egyptian security officials. So far, despite the toughest crackdown on militancy in the country’s history, he has managed to evade capture. His path from the military to Egypt’s most wanted man — described by former colleagues, relatives and Egyptian security officials — shows that many of the country’s problems are homemade.
Born in 1978, Ashmawy is a fitness fanatic whose political views were slow to emerge, according to relatives. He joined a special forces unit called Sa’aika (Thunderbolt) in 1996, giving no sign of opposition to then President Hosni Mubarak, said relatives and associates.
After about a year, Ashmawy started to become more pious, people who knew him said. He was caught handing out Islamist literature and pamphlets to other officers.
Saeed Ismail, a former army officer who knew Ashmawy for nearly two years, said Ashmawy was punished but still organized gatherings after morning prayers.
“He talked with us about the need to have our own personalities and not to accept orders without being convinced of them,” said Ismail.
Ashmawy began to fast regularly and would often criticize the government. One day, Ismail recalls, Ashmawy yelled at two conscripts, “Victory will only come through force.”
After four years in Thunderbolt, Ashmawy was transferred to an administrative post where the authorities thought he would be less of a threat. But he met other officers, discussed political Islam, and kept handing out banned books.
Relatives say a tipping point came in 2006. A close friend of Ashmawy’s was detained by state security agents, they say, adding that they believe the man was tortured and died in custody. After that, they noticed a sharp shift in Ashmawy’s temperament.
“Before this incident he was religious like any other Egyptian but he did not hate the men from state security or the army and he had many friends in the police,” said his nephew Osama Mohamed, who was close to his uncle. “After this incident, he cut all of them off except for two.”
In 2007, a military court expelled Ashmawy from the army. He started an import-export business in Cairo, trading clothes and auto parts. And he kept on meeting other former military officers in a mosque beneath his father’s apartment.
In the chaos that ended three decades of rule by Mubarak in 2011, Ashmawy dropped off the radar of military intelligence, security officials said.
Islamist President Mohammed Morsi took over. When el-Sissi toppled Morsi in 2013, militants based in the Sinai launched an insurgency. In particular, fighters with a group called Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis stepped up attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police.
Ashmawy had joined Ansar in 2012. A year later, he emerged as a key operative, heading a cell that taught fighters how to carry out suicide bombing missions, assemble roadside bombs and shoot soldiers.
In 2013, one week after the former interior minister survived an assassination attempt, security forces raided Ashmawy’s house. Instead of Ashmawy, they found extensive exercise equipment, including climbing ropes hanging from a ceiling.
One Egyptian security official tracking Ashmawy said Ashmawy is highly effective because he knows how the security and military officers who are after him think. “He has managed to make daring escapes when we had him surrounded.”
In late 2013, security officials surrounded Ashmawy and other militants for 24 hours in a desert area near Ain al-Sukhna near the Red Sea. Five men were shot dead, but Ashmawy and one other escaped.
“How this happened I don’t know,” said a special forces officer. The security official tracking Ashmawy said he had deep knowledge of desert escape routes and checkpoints. Sometimes he dresses like a Bedouin; other times in a cap and jeans.
In July this year, the security forces may have come closer than ever to capturing Ashmawy when he led a machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attack on a checkpoint on the Farafra Oasis Road near Libya that killed 22 border guards.
Ashmawy was wounded, they say. But he got away.
It was then that Ashmawy headed to Libya, taking advantage of the chaos that has gripped the country since Moammar Gadhafi fell.
In November 2014, Ashwamy’s Sinai-based militant group pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Ashwamy split with them, security sources believe, and has been joined in Derna by three former army officers and two ex-policemen.
In July this year, security officials recognized Ashmawy’s voice in an audio message that condemned el-Sissi and called for a holy war against his government.