POST TIME: 14 October, 2019 00:00 00 AM
The problem of transnational terrorism
Dr HA Hellyer

The problem of transnational terrorism

Recently 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.

The writer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council