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Top Egypt militant urges holy war against Egyptian president

CAIRO (AP) — A former army officer who is one of Egypt’s most wanted militants called on his fellow countrymen to wage holy war against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, describing him as a “new pharaoh” in a new recording.

The call purportedly by the militant, Hisham el-Ashmawi, marks at least the third time a former military officer has been named as a suspect in major attacks against troops in recent months, a reflection of the increasing polarization in Egyptian society. It also suggests a new insurgent group has joined the fighting in the country’s lawless Sinai Peninsula.

Officials say el-Ashmawi has worked closely with the Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or “Champions of Jerusalem,” militant group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group last year and is blamed for some of Egypt’s most high-profile deadly attacks.

In the recording, el-Ashmawi, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Omar el-Muhajir, appears to be announcing a new group in Egypt called al-Morabtoon that’s allied to al-Qaida. That’s a name previously used by a militant group that operates in Algeria and Libya, but it is unclear if the new Egyptian group is linked to it.

El-Ashmawi also purportedly allies himself in the audio with the Islamic State rival, al-Qaida, led by Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri.

In the audio, a quote by al-Zawahri comes before el-Ashmawi speaks, criticizing el-Sissi.

“He is following the footsteps of his ancestor pharaoh, who declared himself God the great, using the worst type of torture and harassment of Muslims and using the deceptive magic of the media,” el-Ashmawi purportedly says.

The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant messages, first reported on the audio Tuesday. The message later was later widely shared on social media websites by militant sympathizers, though The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify it.

One military official said el-Ashmawi was named as a suspect in the July 11 bombing outside the Italian Consulate in Cairo that killed a bystander, the first attack on a diplomatic mission in Egypt. El-Ashmawi also is named as a suspect in the killing of the country’s chief prosecutor late last month, the first successful assassination since the 1981 killing of President Anwar Sadat. His assassins were military officers turned militants.

He also is wanted over the failed assassination attempt against the interior minister in 2013 and a brazen attack against troops last summer near the border with Libya. His name was among two dozen militants named in an Interior Ministry video released to the public in January 2014.

Two other senior security officials said el-Ashmawi was a major in the special forces dismissed in 2009. They said he faced a military trial for espousing radical ideas, leading to his dismissal. Two other officials said his dismissal was effective in 2011. The discrepancy couldn’t be immediately reconciled.

The officials said el-Ashmawi has traveled to Libya, Syria and Gaza to train militants there. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

This is at least the third time officials say a former military officer has been named as having leading roles in Egypt’s widening insurgency. A naval officer has been named as a suspect in November attack on a navy patrol boat that saw eight sailors go missing. Another infantry officer has been accused of plotting attacks in the Sinai and being involved in the failed assassination attempt on the interior minister with el-Ashmawi.

Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter, said el-Ashmawi’s new audio highlights the factionalism within Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, as some pledged to the Islamic State group while others prefer to work with al-Qaida.

“We will see how this develops,” Ashour said. “If they split now things may be undermined” for the militants.

There has been a surge in militant attacks in Egypt following the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. The military, led by el-Sissi, forced Morsi out of office, and has since put him on trial. Authorities also cracked down on Islamists and other critics, deepening instability in the country.

As an elected president, el-Sissi has made restoring stability and improving the economy his top priorities. While there have been some improvement in economic indicators, militants’ attacks have grown more brazen.

On Wednesday, el-Sissi spoke to mark the anniversary of the 1952 coup that toppled Egypt’s monarchy, telling military cadets their work is similar to a religious duty.

“Egypt’s national security will remain our top priority,” he said.

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