A former Egyptian army officer who has founded a jihadi group in Libya, Hesham Ashmawy, is “wanted” by the Islamic State, a statement by an IS branch in Libya said. Ashmawy, also known as Abu Omar al-Muhajir, is a lead suspect in the assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat in late June.
Ashmawy announced in a voice recording released on July 25 the launch of a new jihadi group in Libya called Al-Murabitoun, which is said to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
The IS statement said that Ashmawy, 35, joined the Sinai-based jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes after coming back from Syria in 2013, then defected from the group in 2014 when it pledged allegiance to IS. He moved to Libya and fought with the Qaeda-affiliated Magles al-Sahawat in Derna, eastern Libya, a group that fights against IS.
The statement added that Ashmawy himself was involved in the war against IS in Libya and had strong connections with Qaeda-affiliated groups there.
Observers believe that Ashmawy defected from Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which was later re-named Province of Sinai, after a dispute over allegiance. While Province of Sinai leaders believed the group should be aligned with IS, Ashmawy thought it should remain under Al-Qaeda. As a result of the dispute, Ashmawy went to the Western Desert. There is speculation about his involvement in a bombing targeting Farafra army checkpoint in July 2014, which claimed the lives of around 25 army personnel.
In addition to Ashmawy, IS in Libya is also in conflict with Egyptian jihadi Omar Refaay Sorour, the son of sheikh Refaay Sorour, who is the founder of Salafi jihadism in Egypt. Press reports say that both men have played a major role in limiting the presence of IS in Derna, where they both live, and are part of the Martyrs of Abu Sweliem brigade.
In a Facebook statement, Sorour said that 280 IS members have been abducted by the Shura Council of Derna Jihadists in Libya and are being treated properly.
Researcher at the International Crisis Group Issandr El Amrani explained to Mada Masr that there have been ongoing battles between IS and Al-Qaeda supporters in Derna, a conflict sparked by the bigger battle between IS in Syria and Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. However, according to Amrani, the battle is yet to extend to Egypt.
“It is believed that most of the Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdes (ABM) members chose the IS affiliation, but it was opposed by those from the outside, especially the Nile valley, who preferred staying within the historically pro-Qaeda line of Islamic Jihad and other older jihadi groups,” he said. “In this context, it is worth remembering that Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri and [founder] of Islamic Jihad, had been in contact with ABM over 2012 to 2013, and that Ashmawy was also in contact with ABM.”
Amrani explained that Al-Murabitoun group was originally founded by Algerian Salafi jihadi Moukhtar Bil Moukhtar, and also operates in Mali, Niger and Algeria. Hence Ashmawy has access to an extended network of fighters far away from IS, as well, and an open channel for fighters and weapons smuggling into the country.