By: AFP and Francis T. Wakefield
MARAWI – The head of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, who figures on the United States ”most wanted terrorists” list, has been killed in the battle to reclaim a militant-held Mindanao city, the country’s Defense minister said Monday.
Isnilon Hapilon’s death came during a push to end the four-month siege of Marawi, a battle that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and raised fears that IS was seeking to set up a regional base in the southern Philippines.
President Duterte and security analysts say Hapilon has been a key figure in the jihadist outfit’s drive to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate as they suffer battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria.
”(Our troops) were able to get Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. They were both killed,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters, referring to another fighter who led the attack with Hapilon on Marawi in May.
The US government had offered a $5-million bounty for information leading to Hapilon’s arrest, describing the 51-year-old as a senior leader of the southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group, which the US considers a ”foreign terrorist organization.”
Lorenzana said Philippine ground forces mounting a final assault on the militants in Marawi killed Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who led a militant group allied to Hapilon, early Monday.
Dioxyribonucleic acid tests will be carried out on the two bodies because of the reward offer from the US and Philippine governments, he added.
Five other terrorists were killed during the four-hour assault that started at 2 a.m. Seventeen hostages were rescued and 20 troopers were wounded following the fierce firefight.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año said troops managed to gather the terrorists in one block made up of two buildings.
Año, however, said the fight is far from over. “Meron pa, kaya nga hindi pa tayo nagbibigay ng details kasi we are still…hindi pa tapos ’yung laban, eh,” said Año, adding mopping up operations are under way.
Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon, authorities said. The military says Hapilon joined forces with the Maute group to plan the rampage.
Since then, more than 1,000 people have been killed and 400,000 residents displaced. Duterte has imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines to quell the militant threat.
The insurgents have withstood a relentless US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with troops that have left large parts of Marawi in ruins.
Defense chiefs last month said other Philippine militant leaders had been killed in the battle for Marawi. Troops were still pursuing Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad in the Marawi battle zone, Lorenzana said Monday, describing him as the ”conduit” between IS and local militant groups.
The restive south of the mainly Catholic Philippines is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency and to extremist gangs that have declared allegiance to IS including the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.
Hapilon is believed to have been involved in 2001 kidnappings of three Americans, two of whom were later killed. He was based in Basilan in the strife-torn south but authorities said in January that he had moved to the Mautes’ base in Lanao del Sur, 300 kilometers east, to create an alliance and to establish an IS presence there.
Marawi is Lanao del Sur’s capital and largest city.
The deaths of Hapilon and Maute signal the end of the militant groups, the Armed Forces Chief said Monday. ”This means their center of gravity has crumbled,” Año said. “We just needed to get these two (leaders) to make sure the leadership, the centre of gravity falls, and elsewhere even the Maute-ISIS (fighters) in other areas would also crumble.”
However, an analyst said the deaths of the leaders would likely prompt retaliatory attacks from their followers and allies, with young leaders seeking to take their place.
”Terrorism will take a new form in the post-Marawi period because these terrorist groups linked to ISIS continue to innovate and their actions are evolving,” Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told AFP. ”It’s going to be a new battle.”