Egyptian army says high-profile Islamic militant executed

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt executed on Wednesday one of its most high-profile militant leaders, the military said, after his conviction for his role in planning scores of deadly attacks against the country's security forces.

Hisham el-Ashmawi, a former Egyptian special forces officer turned Islamic militant, was sentenced to death by a military court in November in two separate cases for his participation in scores of militant attacks on government targets.

A civilian court also Monday sentenced him to death along with 36 other militants on terror-related charges.

Col. Tamer el-Rifai, a military spokesman, said on his Facebook page that el-Ashmawi was executed Wednesday by hanging. He posted a photo of the militant in a long beard and wearing a bright orange jumpsuit that is usually worn by those sentenced to death.

He said el-Ashmawi was convicted in 14 crimes including a 2014 ambush that killed 22 Egyptian military border guards near the border with Libya, and the 2013 assassination attempt against the interior minister at the time, Mohammed Ibrahim.

El-Ashmawi was captured in October 2018 in the Libyan city of Derna, a longtime bastion of Islamic militants, by the forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter, an Egyptian ally. He was handed over to Egypt in March.

The militant leader has been a valuable target for Egyptian security forces eager to obtain valuable intelligence for its years-long fight against militants.

Ashmawi helped found Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a jihadi organization based in Egypt's northern Sinai province that has seen an insurgency waged there for years. His military expertise — he left the Egyptian army in 2011 — transformed the tiny group into a well-organized guerrilla band that later inflicted painful blows on security forces in Sinai.

Beit al-Maqdis swore allegiance to the extremist Islamic State group in November 2014 and took to renaming itself as “Welayet Sinai,” or the province of Sinai.

El-Ashmawi, however, did not declare his allegiance to IS, which was then at the peak of its power and controlled about a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

In an audio recording released in 2015 that is believed to be authentic, el-Ashmawi allied himself with the Islamic State group’s rival, al-Qaida, led by Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri.

After fleeing to Libya, he tried to establish himself among Islamic militants and extremists in the country’s east. He created al-Mourabitoun, a militant group blamed for most of the attacks in Egypt’s remote Western Desert, such as a 2017 ambush that killed nearly 30 Christian pilgrims on their way to a monastery.

Such attacks have been part of an Islamic insurgency spearheaded by the IS affiliate. The insurgency gained strength after the 2013 military overthrow of a freely elected but divisive Muslim Brotherhood president.

Egypt has granted police forces and courts sweeping powers in response to Islamic militant attacks. Human rights observers say the crackdown has resulted in an abandonment of due process and violations of international law.