Cairo: The capture of notorious Egyptian militant Hesham Ashmawi this week in Libya has dealt a big blow to terrorist groups in both countries, experts have said.
Ashmawi, an ex-Egyptian army officer wanted for masterminding a string of deadly attacks, was captured by the Libyan forces Monday in the eastern city of Derna, once a major stronghold of extremists in troubled Libya.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi on Thursday said Libya should handover Ashmawi to Egypt, for him to be held to account for “betraying” the army oath.
“His arrest is a landmark [development] in the fight against terrorism in the two countries in view of his key role in the terrorist operations over the past five years,” Hamdy Nasr, a security expert told Gulf News.
“He is not an ordinary kind of terrorist. Ashmawi is a terrorist leader, acted as a link between terrorist groups in Sinai and Libya as well as their financiers and providers of weapons. Therefore, investigations with him will lead to crucial information and provide answers to many questions,” Nasr said.
“He is not less dangerous than Osama Bin Laden,” he added.
Ashmawi, 40, was dismissed from the Egyptian army in 2011 for embracing radical ideas.
He later travelled to Syria via Turkey before returning to Sinai where he joined Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, a terrorist group that in 2014 swore allegiance to Daesh.
In 2015, Ashmawi broke away from Daesh and sneaked into Libya where he established Al Murabteen, an Al Qaida affiliate.
Ashmawi has been involved in deadly attacks against Egyptian security forces and minority Christians since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi.
These attacks include a failed attempt in September 2013 to assassinate Egypt’s interior minister Mohammad Ebrahim and a 2015 car bombing that killed Egypt’s then chief prosecutor Hesham Barakat.
He is also believed to be the mastermind of last year’s attack on a bus carrying Copts to a monastery in south Egypt, killing 29 people.
“He is a wealth of information,” said Fouad Allam, a member of Egypt’s state Anti-Terrorism Council.
“His capture marks an important result of security cooperation between Egypt and Libya that will expedite efforts to eliminate terrorism,” he added.
Libya, Egypt’s western neighbour, became a hotbed for foreign militants after the country slid into anarchy following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 armed revolt.
Egyptian media has welcomed Ashmwai’s arrest. Cairo has not said if it will ask Libya to hand over Ashmawi, who has already been sentenced to death on terrorism charges in two separate cases.
The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by military strongman Khalifa Haftar, has hinted at Egyptian participation in current interrogation of Ashmawi.
“His crimes have hit Egypt and Libya alike,” said Ahmad Al Mesmari, a spokesman for pro-Haftar forces.
“Legally speaking, any country has the right to attend investigations with one of its citizens conducted by another country. This becomes crucial when this citizen is involved in crimes of terrorism at home,” Al Mesmari added in media remarks without giving details.
Since Mursi’s ouster, Egypt has sought to tighten its long border with Libya and thwarted several cross-the-border infiltration attempts.
Ashmawi is accused of having planned attacks on Egyptian security forces in the Western Desert near the Libyan border.
His capture alive is a big success, according to Marzouq Al Saeed, a Libyan political researcher living in Egypt.
“He is a valuable catch for security agencies in Libya and Egypt. He is likely to disclose the sleeping terrorist cells in both countries and their financiers,” said Al Saeed.
“This information will come as ammunition to the campaign against terrorism in both Libya and Egypt.”