Former Egyptian SF Officer Advises anti-ISIS Forces in Derna

BLUF: On August 18, ISIS published a wanted poster for Hisham Ali Ashmawi Masad Ibrahim, also known as Abu Omar al-Muhajir, a former Egyptian Special Forces officer who previously traveled to Syria as a foreign fighter. The poster claims that al-Muhajir traveled to Libya in 2014 to join the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSC Derna) and has been participating in the “war against the Islamic State.” If confirmed, the presence of this trained soldier may explain in part MSC Derna’s ability to expel ISIS from the city and continue to withstand their counter-attacks.

For several months, ISIS’ Libyan affiliates have been releasing digitized “wanted posters” for various individuals who oppose the organization and its expansion in North Africa. While these posters are interesting and relevant in aggregate, until this point the individuals named have been either obvious or unknown. This release alleges that Hisham Ali Ashmawi Masad Ibrahim (aka Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a former Egyptian Army officer and known jihadist, has traveled to Libya and has joined the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna. (MSC Derna).

Abu Omar al-Muhajir became well known in late June 2015, when a group calling itself “al-Murabitoon” (not to be confused with the West African al-Qaeda affiliate) released a video in which al-Muhajir rhetorically condemned the Egyptian government. Following this release the Egyptian government reported that al-Murabitoon was linked to a number of high-profile assassinations in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula including Hisham Barakat and Mohammad Ibrahim. al-Muhajir himself was an officer in the Egyptian Special Forces until approximately 2011 at which point he joined the Sinai jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) and shortly afterward traveled to Syria as a foreign fighter. While ABM was absorbed by ISIS in November 2014, it appears that al-Muhajir had severed his ties with the group by that point.

If Abu Omar al-Muhajir has traveled to Libya and is advising MSC Derna, it would explain much of their military success. While MSC Derna can draw on a limited number of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) veterans from the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade (ASMB), it is unlikely that they would have the same depth of knowledge and experience that al-Mujahir possesses. His training with the Egyptian Special Forces and experience fighting with both ABM and in Syria likely serve as a significant force multiplier for the provincial forces resisting ISIS in Derna.

Simultaneously, al-Muhajir’s presence could represent an expansion of the jihadist landscape in Derna, which may lead to additional fractures and infighting in the future. ASMB and MSC Derna are heavily focused on Derna itself and have shown no indication of projecting power beyond the city and its surroundings. Integrating individuals with regional ambitions may prove problematic for the group.