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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Libya captures fugitive Egyptian militant Hisham Ashmawi

The former army officer is accused of co-ordinating terror attacks in Egypt and Libya 

Hisham Ashmawi, who has been captured by the Libyan National Army.
Hisham Ashmawi, who has been captured by the Libyan National Army.

Libya is expected to extradite an Egyptian Al Qaeda commander, who has been sentenced to death in his homeland, after capturing him in the extremist stronghold of Derna.

Hisham Ashmawi is accused of being behind terrorist attacks that have killed dozens of people. He was captured in eastern Libya on Monday, the Libyan National Army announced.

Mr Ashmawi, a former special forces officer who defected from the Egyptian Army was discovered in a hideaway alongside the wife and sons of another militant named Mohamed Rifai Sorour, LNA spokesman Maj-Gen Ahmed Mismari said.

He was captured wearing a explosive belt but the device failed to detonate and he was disarmed by LNA forces.

Mr Ashmawi is believed to have masterminded numerous attacks in Egypt as well as Libya, and was said to be a leader of the Mourabitoun organisation, which is loyal to Al Qaeda.

A former Egyptian Army officer who was expelled for spreading extremist ideas to recruits, he has long been suspected of fleeing to Libya, from where he masterminded attacks in Egypt.

Switching his allegiance from ISIS to Al Qaeda, Mr Ashmawi was called "the most dangerous terrorist we face" by an Egyptian National Security official in 2015.

He is believed to have been behind a 2013 assassination attempt against then-Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim and several deadly ambushes of security forces in the country's Western Desert near the Libyan border.

In 2017, Ashmawi was thought to have been behind a bus attack which killed 29 Copts in Minya, Egypt.

Derna was been under the control of a local group supportive of Al Qaeda from June 2015, until a couple of months ago, when the LNA ousted it in a month-long assault.

A handful of its fighters remain in hiding in Derna’s old city, despite operations officially ending in July. The LNA are in the process of rooting out extremist remnants. Sorour was the grand mufti of the group, known as the Shura Council of Mujahideen, and died over the summer although the exact date is unknown.

Another LNA official shared photos with The National of Ashmawi with cuts and bruises to his face, as he received medical attention. An Egyptian military identification card appearing to belong to Ashmawi was also found among his possessions.

The offensive on Derna was part of the LNA’s chief Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s wider plans to rid eastern Libya of the terrorist groups that have held large areas of the country since the 2011 revolution.

Meanwhile, the head of Libya’s unity government has brought in a raft of ministerial changes to try to stave off an unstable security situation and economic issues. Faiez Serraj, the President of the Government of National Accord, appointed a new interior, finance and economic minister to widen the power bases of his cabinet.

Perhaps the most significant appointment was Fathi Bashagha as minister of the interior who will be tasked with providing a semblance of security in the capital Tripoli and mediating between an array of heavily armed militias. Many of these brigades nominally fall under the interior ministry but largely operate as they please. More than 100 people were killed in August and September as inter-militia clashes spiralled out of control.

Mr Bashagha is a member of parliament and a businessman from Misrata. He is close to the city’s powerful fighters who formed a key part in the 2011 revolution and ousted ISIS from its Libyan and North African stronghold of Sirte in 2016. Many were brought in from Misrata in September to form a buffer between Tripoli’s militias to quell further violence.

“This is the decision of the government and we work under the ministry of interior. We deal with orders and are not concerned with names or personalities,” Ahmed Ben Salim, spokesman of the ultra-conservative brigade Rada, also known as the Special Deterrence Force, told The National.

“It is important for him to be a national figure of leadership and to understand the extent of the responsibility, especially in terms of security,” said Mr Ben Salim, whose Rada operates under the interior minister and was a key faction in the clashes that struck Tripoli in August and September.

However, others were more cautious over whether the reforms could make tangible change.

"The problem of Libya is not about taking a [government] position, the problem is whether we can make any change. The real reform must be to unify the government and institutions," Jalel Al Wershafani, spokesman of the capital's most powerful faction, Tripoli's Revolutionaries Brigade, told The National.

In the wake of the fighting, the international community and government has sought to bring in new measures that lessen the reliance on the state-sanctioned militias. The militias grip Tripoli and are accused of corruption, extortion and brutal tactics against rivals.

Rada runs a jail that holds about 2,500 inmates including terror suspects, drugs dealers, rivals and the Manchester bomber's brother Hashem Abedi. It recently released about 100 detainees linked to an opposing group from the suburb of Tajoura as a goodwill gesture.

Also, the leader of another powerful pro-government militia called the Nawasi resigned from his post and handed over control of Tripoli’s port as the UN-backed administration implemented fresh security procedures.

Changing his economic and finance ministers is part of Mr Serra's wider impetus to inject life into Libya’s economy.

“The latest reshuffle of the GNA is the direct result of the month-long battle that broke out in the Tripoli area on August 26, killing over 115 people,” said Jalel Harchaoui, Libya expert at Paris 8 University.

“This means that the various ministerial picks were politically motivated with a view not to solve Libya’s nationwide conflict necessarily, but rather to address some the more-local imbalances that caused the alarming violence that engulfed the greater Tripoli area for four weeks,” he said.

However, Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh tweeted that the appointment of Ali Issawi as economic minister risked jeopardising Libya’s oil output because of tribal tensions. Mr Issawi is one of the key suspects in the 2011 assassination of General Abdul Fatah Younis, who was the commander of Libya’s revolutionary forces.

It was reported that General Younis’s Obeidat tribe, whose power base is in the east of Libya, would revolt against Mr Issawi’s appointment.

In September the government implemented economic packages that sought to reduce the disparity between Libya’s official exchange rate and that on the black market. The country’s banks lack liquidity and Libyans often have to queue for days to withdraw money.

In a tweet, the UN mission to Libya said: “UNSMIL wishes the newly appointed ministers success in their new roles. The UN stands ready to support them towards implementing the new security arrangements in Tripoli, advancing the needed economic reforms and unifying Libyan national institutions.”

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