Hisham Ashmawi and the problem of transnational terrorism

Hisham Ashmawi after his capture in the former ISIS stronghold of Derna, Libya
Hisham Ashmawi after his capture in the former ISIS stronghold of Derna, Libya

Last month, Hisham Ashmawi, a former Egyptian special operations officer who became a leading member of several violent extremist groups, was extradited from Libya to Egypt.

Ashmawi, who was captured in October last year, was the head of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Mourabitoun group. His path, from the Egyptian military to Islamist extremism raises crucial questions about how we think about radicalisation in the region. Moreover, it is a trajectory that predates both the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary waves of the past decade.

Mada Masr has revealed that after enlisting in the military in 1997, Ashmawi became a member of the elite Thunderbolt special operations unit. When he began to show signs of religious extremism, he was first transferred into an administrative role and eventually discharged by military tribunal in 2012.

A Reuters investigation has detailed that he was shifting towards radicalism years before the Egyptian uprising. In fact, his family believe that the pivotal moment came in 2006, when a close friend of Ashmawi’s was detained by state security agents and died in custody. Looked at in the context of what Ashmawi later became, his anger about this death can be seen as the point his relationship with the state began to disintegrate and the catalyst for his subsequent extremism.

In 2013, following the uprisings against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Ashmawi travelled to Syria to join with the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra. He eventually returned to Egypt and joined the militant group Ansar Beit Al Maqdis. When it pledged allegiance to ISIS, Ashmawi left. That moment led to the founding of Al Mourabitoun, which remained loyal to Al Qaeda and operated between Libya and Egypt.

Ashmawi’s journey represents in microcosm the problems with transnational extremist groups. He began as an officer of the Egyptian state, so committed that he became part of an elite military group, yet, over time, he shifted into extremist Islamism.

The question is, why? It would be too easy to say that Ashmawi was simply following a hardline path. Likewise, his turnaround cannot just be attributed to political grievances against the Egyptian or Syrian states.

If that had been the case, he might have travelled to Syria and joined any number of non-extremist groups fighting against Assad’s forces, or as many Libyan expatriates did when they returned to Libya in 2011 to fight against Muammar Qaddafi. Instead, he specifically chose an extremist Islamist group in Syria and continued in that vein when he returned to Egypt, prior to the formation of Al Mourabitoun.

There was obviously something that appealed to him in extremism – the power of ideas is significant here, and cannot be denied. But there is a danger of being too crude about this. In studies on terrorism, far too many jump to the conclusion that “bad ideology” (often read as “bad religion”) is responsible for such extremism.

That is a useful approach for governments and many on the right wing, because it minimises or removes the need to consider more complicated questions, including official policies. It can be taken regarding domestic matters, such as the failure to protect fundamental rights or to address social exclusion. Meanwhile, when applied to foreign policy, it denies any link between political grievances related to a given country’s strategies overseas.

But there is another perspective. Recently, I collaborated with Professor Michele Grossman of Deakin University in Australia to look into constructing a new framework, as part of a multinational and multi-institutional consortium examining radicalisation. Among other things, we concluded that religious and/or political ideas may not always be causative, but they are always at least enabling. In other words, sometimes ideas are abused in order to justify acts that are not primarily about ideological considerations at all, but far more about socio-political issues. And sometimes ideas matter above all else.

As part of developing that framework, we also noted that for ideas to be prominent in radicalising people towards violent extremism, they had to have a clear desire to “other” people that do not adhere to them. Moreover, that othering had to lead to harm.

For Ashmawi, it would appear that is what happened – in a very transnational fashion. Ashmawi started in Egypt, and returned there, but in the midst of his journey, joined up with “fellow travellers” in Syria and Libya. His motives appear not to have been simply about his grievances. There was a deep ideological commitment – one that cut across borders, and that existed before his life experiences pulled him in a particular direction.

And, yet, at the same time, that’s only part of the story – because the story of the Arab revolutionary uprisings interacted indelibly with Ashmawi’s own radicalism, providing impetuses and opportunities for him to become more and more extreme. But was that inevitable? No – because there were other impetuses that he might have followed instead, and he could have joined other, non-extreme groups.

More often than not in public discussions around extremism, there is the temptation to be absolutist – either it is all about ideas, or it is about everything else. What Ashmawi teaches us boils down to two basic points of common sense. The first is that ideas do matter – sometimes a little and sometimes as the most primary factor. However, the second point – and this is perhaps what governments don’t always want to hear – when oppression or repression is the norm, bad ideas thrive. This can have lasting effects that can fester and grow for many years, as Ashmawi’s case appears to illustrate. We may not be able to eradicate bad ideas, but when fundamental rights and freedoms are upheld, they are far less likely to thrive.

Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council

Updated: June 12, 2019 09:37 PM


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