Could the death sentence be a deterrent for terrorists in Egypt?

Fatma Lotfi
8 Min Read

Two militants, who were convicted in dangerous and high-profile attacks against security forces in the last few years, were brought to justice in 2019. This has risen many questions on whether the death sentence could be a deterrent for terrorists in Egypt and contribute in the decrease of similar attacks.

On 27 November 2019, a Cairo military court sentenced the most wanted major militant in Egypt, Hisham Al-Ashmawy, a notorious jihadist, to death over several charges, including planning the Farafra checkpoint attack, near the Egyptian-Libyan border, which killed 22 soldiers in July 2014. It was one of the deadliest attacks against Egyptian security forces in recent years.

He is also convicted for the assassination attempt of former Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September 2013, and for planning attacks targeting merchant ships in Suez Canal in mid-2013.

Ashmawy was apprehended in Derna by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces headed by eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, in October 2018. He was then extradited to Egyptian authorities in May 2019. Before his extradition, several Egyptian military courts sentenced him to death in absentia.

Retired Egyptian General and military expert Talaat Mesalam told Daily News Egypt that sentencing a terrorist to death will not eliminate the crimes they committed or the attacks that he carried out. “Even inside prison, Ashmawy could be a source of annoyance.”

Yet, Mesalam believes the death sentence of the jihadist will still have an impact, albeit limited.

He added that it is not easy to evaluate the significance of Ashmawy as a leading militant, especially since the court trials were not public. But he could conclude from the information provided on the charges he is convicted of that he is “a dangerous terrorist and his danger surpassed other terrorists.”

“The execution or imprisonment of terrorists cannot guarantee that the kinds of attacks they carried out or planned would not recur in the future,” Mesalam pointed out.

One of the elements that made Ashmawy dangerous is that he was among a small succession of former Egyptian army officers who joined militant groups. He was a special forces officer before he joined different militant groups in Egypt and Libya with the main target to attack the country’s army and police.

In 2011, Ashmawy was discharged from the Egyptian army after displaying radical tendencies. He joined in 2013 the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis militant group, a Sinai-based group which emerged after the overthrow of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi after mass protests.

Al-Ashmawy is believed to have gone to Libya in 2013 before defecting from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group in November 2014 and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province).

“It’s not clear how Ashmawy’s death sentence can do more to protect Egyptian national security and its forces. The terrorist leader, while allegedly behind many of the largest atrocities against Egyptian security forces since 2013, was captured by the LAAF over a year ago,” Zack Gold, an analyst at CNA in Arlington, US told the Daily News Egypt.

Hrsaid, “While bringing Ashmawy to justice and serving him the ultimate sentence is important for the morale of Egypt’s military and police, political violence in the country — while diminished from its height — has moved on under the leadership of others.”

Gold said “it was easy to blame Ashmawy, who was both a skilled military tactician and was familiar with Egyptian army training, for attacks in which the army or police suffered significant casualties.”

Ashmawy appeared in a video in 2015 under the nom de guerre of Abu Omar al-Muhajir and claimed responsibility for the Farafra checkpoint attack. He also announced the formation of his Al-Qaeda-aligned militant group Al-Murabitoon.

Al-Murabitoon may have connections to another Al-Qaeda affiliated group, which has a known presence in Egypt known as Ansar al-Islam, according to the Washington-based Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy.

Ashmawy later in July 2015 called for a holy war against the Egyptian government in an audio message.

Alongside another army officer-turned-jihadist chief, Emad al-Din Abdel Hamid, Ashmawy is accused of conducting several attacks in the Western Desert and the Delta including the assassination attempt of interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim.

“Without Ashmawy, both IS and Al-Qaeda-linked groups have managed high-casualty attacks on both sides of Egypt. The Egyptian army, especially, has proved that when it takes the initiative it can keep the pressure on militants in Sinai,” Gold pointed out.

Abdel Hamid was one of the leaders of Ansar al-Islam, which claimed another deadly terrorist attack against security forces in Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert, about 85 km southwest of Cairo, in October 2017. The attack, which is publicly known as the Al-Wahat shootout, killed 16 police officers and injured 13.

The Egyptian army, in coordination with security forces, launched airstrikes for weeks targeting the perpetrators of the attack and killed Abdel Hamid in Egypt’s Western Desert In November 2017.

A Libyan militant named Abdel Rahim Al-Mesmari was the main defendant in Al-Wahat attack, according to Egyptian prosecution investigations. Al-Mesmari, who was arrested in November 2017, was trained by Abdel Hamid.

Mesmari was handed a death sentence by an Egyptian military court on 17 November, only 10 days before the verdict against Ashmawy was issued. Other defendants in the case also received various prison sentences.

Retired Egyptian General and military expert Gamal Mazloum remarked DNE that bringing both Ashmawy and Mesmari to justice “will deter other terrorists who are operating in Egypt or outside the country.”

Mazloum praised the arrest of Ashmawy and the court verdict. “It is a major step for the Egyptian state to take against a terrorist who carried out attacks in Egypt and then fled to Libya to launch other aggressive attacks against security forces.”

Mazloum highlighted the army and police’s military offensive on terrorism, saying that it contributed to an “obvious decline in the number of terrorist attacks” in 2019.

Since February 2018, the Egyptian military and police launched a campaign dubbed “Sinai 2018” to confront militants in central and North Sinai, the Nile Delta region, and the Western Desert. The army regularly publishes statements on the updates of the military operations, including security raids on terrorists’ hideouts and killing of alleged terrorists.

Hundreds of police and army personnel were killed in terrorist attacks in the last six years.

In 27 September 2019, seven Egyptian soldiers and one civilian were killed while ten others, including soldiers and civilians, were wounded in a deadly ambush on an Egyptian military checkpoint in Bir Al-Abed, North Sinai. The attack was claimed by Wilayat Sinai.

Share This Article
A journalist in DNE's politics section with more than six years of experience in print and digital journalism, focusing on local political issues, terrorism and human rights. She also writes features on women issues and culture.