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Egypt executes army officer-turned-militant Hisham al-Ashmawy

Former special forces member had been Egypt's most-wanted man before his capture in Libya and extradition last year
A picture of Hisham Ashmawy before his execution, as posted by the spokesman of the Egyptian armed forces on 4 March 202 (Facebook)

Egypt executed on Wednesday its most-wanted militant Hisham al-Ashmawy after convicting him of several high-profile attacks that killed dozens of officers, a spokesman of the army announced.

"This morning the death penalty was carried out on the terrorist Hisham al-Ashmawy," Egypt’s army spokesman wrote on Facebook, with a picture of Ashmawy with a thick beard dressed in orange prison overalls.

Ashmawy was a prominent special forces officer in the Egyptian army, but turned into the country’s most-wanted militant after his early retirement in 2012.

'Ashmawy posed a significant threat to the army due to his prior military experience, which led to the success of all his operations,'

- Mahmoud Gamal, military analyst

He was handed over to Cairo in May last year after being captured by forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in October 2018 in eastern Libya's Derna.

Since then, Ashmawy has been tried by a military tribunal on charges of orchestrating assassination attempts against top officials and a being behind a range of terror attacks.

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He was sentenced to death in absentia in 2017 on charges of killing 26 soldiers and plotting to bomb the Ettihadeya presidential palace, along with a series of other charges.

Ashmawy, who gave himself the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Muhajir, is also accused of plotting an assassination attempt against a former interior minister in 2013 and the killing of the prosecutor-general in 2015.

An extremist in the Egyptian army

Ashmawy developed extremist views while serving in the army, and was forced into early retirement in 2012 as a result, according to military affairs analyst Mahmoud Gamal.

After his retirement, he led the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, until it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014.

“Ashmawy was more inclined to al-Qaeda ideology, and was branded an infidel by IS,” Gamal told Middle East Eye.

He later set up another group in the Western Desert called al-Murabiteen, which embraced al-Qaeda ideology.

“His operations targeted army officers, rather than soldiers, unlike IS,” Gamal said.

The militant group later crossed the border to Libya and joined the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, before he was captured.

Ashmawy was a celebrated member of the army and received training in the United States.

While serving, Ashmawy began to develop views increasingly critical of the Egyptian government and the military, though they did not yet have a strict religious edge.

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"He used to tell his fellow officers that the duty of an army officer was to defend the country, rather than being hired as presidential guards," Gamal said. 

From 2006, he became aligned to another ex-special forces officer, Emad Abdelhamid, who was dismissed from the army due to his extremist views.

Ashmawy, however, was not dismissed from the army, even after showing similar tendencies.

Despite his criticism of Hosni Mubarak's government and the military, he did not support the 2011 pro-democracy revolution.

In 2012, in his late thirties, he was forced into early retirement.

After formally leaving the army, he launched his militant activity, along with Abdelhamid, utilising their expertise from serving in the armed forces.

“Ashmawy posed a significant threat to the army due to his prior military experience, which led to the success of all his operations,” Gamal said.

He was also a colleague of special forces Colonel Ahmed Mansy, who was shot dead by IS in an attack that killed nine other senior army officers and more than ten soldiers in Sinai in July 2017.

While Ashmawy is branded as the country’s most dangerous terrorist, Mansy is hailed as a hero by Egyptian state media, and his story along with that of Ashmawy has been adapted into a TV series that is due to be broadcast in the summer of 2020.

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