Meanwhile, the bodies of 75 people are found in the former ISIS stronghold of Sirte
Libya grants Egyptian interrogators access to Al Qaeda leader
Egyptian officials have begun interrogating one of their country’s most wanted Al Qaeda terror leaders, who was caught in the Libyan city of Derna on Monday.
A delegation of security specialists was hopeful of gaining valuable intelligence to aid in Egypt’s fight against the group in the Sinai Peninsula. The development came as it emerged ten terrorists were killed by Egyptian forces in Northern Sinai on Tuesday.
Hiasham Ashmawi was seized in a raid by the Libyan National Army in the former terrorist haven of Derna, 165 miles west of the Egyptian border. The 40-year-old is accused of being behind a raft of attacks in recent years, including a 2013 assassination attempt against the then interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim. He was sentenced to death in absentia by Egypt last year and is likely to be extradited back to his home country.
A former special forces officer, Ashmawi helped found the Sinai-based group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ashmawi was believed to have sworn his loyalty to Al-Qaeda. He then set up the al-Mourabitoun group, which Egyptian authorities have accused of being behind recent terrorist attacks in the country’s western desertincluding a 2017 ambush that killed nearly 29 Christian pilgrims travelling to a remote monastery.
Pro-Egyptian government media said Ashmawi participated in a sit-in supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in Cairo's Rabaa El-Adaweya in late 2016 before then fleeing to Libya. In the meantime, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014.
Among the other charges levelled against him, Ashmawi was a suspect in the July 2015 bombing of the Italian consulate in Cairo and in the murder of Egypt’s chief prosecutor in the same year.
Derna has long had a reputation for exporting and importing extremists. In October 2014 ISIS took over the city but were then overran by an Al-Qaeda linked group called the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna in June 2015. They were then pushed out by the LNA in June 2015, although sleeper cells remain, particularly in the old city. Ashmawi was captured with an Egyptian military card and alongside wife and sons of the Shura Council’s Mufti.
Cairo has forged close links with the LNA because of a shared anti-Islamist stance and previously carried out airstrikes in February 2015 on ISIS camps in Derna.
The arrest of Ashnawi has led pro-LNA politicians to urge for greater support towards Libya’s largest armed faction, which is headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. It comes at a time of political upheaval, as the UN-backed government in Tripoli, opposed by the LNA, brought in a number of controversial ministerial changes.
“Once again, the arrest of Ashmawi confirms the relevance of the fight that the LNA has unabatedly been conducting against Benghazi and Derna,” said Mohamed Dayri, the previous foreign minister.
“It is of critical importance that those who have colluded with and vouched support for extremists in Derna and Benghazi are not included in Libya’s political process in the future,” said Mr Dayri.
A leading presidential candidate and former ambassador to the UAE, Dr Aref Nayed, accused extremist groups such as those that used to operate in Derna of receiving support from the military wings of organisations supportive of political Islam.
Separately, the current UN-recognised leader of Libya, Fayez Serraj, has been attacked after appointing an allegedly Islamist economy minister as part of an attempt to broaden support. Ali Abdulaziz Issawi is accused of involvement in the 2011 assassination of the military leader of the rebels against former dictator Muammar Gaddafi – despite being a revolutionary himself.
Maj-Gen Abdul Fateh Younis was killed in still unexplained circumstances amid allegations he was secretly in contact with the Gaddafi regime.
The Obeidat tribe, which Maj-Gen Younis was from, protested against the decision to appoint Mr Issawi calling for him to prove his innocence in front of the judiciary.
Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) said in late 2011 that the former deputy prime minister was suspected of involvement in the killing of one of the rebel movement’s most senior military commanders.
Meanwhile, some 75 corpses have been discovered in the western suburbs of the central coastal city of Sirte, where ISIS made their North African stronghold until they were ousted in late 2016. An official from the Sirte Protection Forces said the identity of the bodies found was still not confirmed but were likely to be from ISIS. He added that locals said they did not bury the bodies.