Twenty-one terror leaders are in the running as the next “emir” of the Islamic State (IS) for Southeast Asia, replacing Isnilon Hapilon, according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr..
“After we walloped [the Maute group]in Marawi City, there were, of course, leaders who were left there. There were 21 of them we are looking at,” Esperon said on Tuesday at the sidelines of the annual Protect 2018 event in Makati City.
He came up with the revelation a week after the Philippine Army’s First Infantry Division (ID) cited information that Abu Dar had replaced Hapilon, after the latter was killed in October last year with Omarkhayam Maute in the middle of a siege of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, by the IS-inspired Maute group.
Esperon said it is possible that Dar is a potential successor of Hapilon, adding that the First ID should have only mentioned that the former is a “probable candidate” for the leadership of IS in Southeast Asia.
“One of the candidates is Abu Dar. He is among those [who could replace Hapilon], because he is very near Marawi. Abu Dar managed to escape during the Marawi siege and he was able to get out of Marawi and bring out some funds, which we believe he can now use to recruit or to fund some operations,” the former military chief added.
“That is why we are monitoring him closely,” he said.
All 21 candidates have been identified and were included in the wanted list of the government but not all took part in the Marawi siege, according to Esperon.
“Not that significant. I don’t want to sound very complacent. We all know that since it’s on our list,” he said.
Esperon downplayed the capabilities of Dar to lead another siege despite his boast that “so many [terrorist]leaders” are dispersed all over Mindanao.
Aside from Dar, he said, Malaysian Amin Baco and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader Yasser Igasan are also potential successors of Hapilon.
Baco, according to Esperon, was not accounted for as among those who were killed during the Marawi siege, contradicting claims made by several military officials last year that the foreign terrorist was among those who died during the siege.
He said terrorists who originated from the Lanao provinces and Sulu would not let themselves be under foreign terrorists.
In 2007, the military disclosed that Talipao, Sulu-based Igasan had replaced Khadaffy Janjalani as the leader of the ASG.
Igasan is also being considered as the heir of Hapilon in the IS leadership, Esperon said.
He, however, said the IS “emir” candidates are not comparable with Hapilon, whom he had faced when he was in Basilan during his days as an active military officer.
“Isnilon Hapilon was my match in Basilan. Remember, that’s where Hapilon and Esperon had a face-off,” Esperon added.
“I don’t think [that the candidates are comparable with Hapilon]. But we can never be complacent, and we can never let our guard down. In fact, the President has been saying that these terrorists could attack other cities,” he said.
With military forces deployed to different parts of Mindanao, particularly “target areas” of terroristic activities, Esperon added that the military must be able to react immediately to any incident that may occur.
He said government troops have been sent to Cotabato and Iligan City, Lanao del Norte.
Esperon also disclosed that there were 40 foreign terrorists who managed to slip into the country to join the Marawi siege.
But of the number, he said, only 14 were accounted for as having died during the Marawi crisis.
He also revealed that transfer of funds for local terror groups in Mindanao from the IS organization was “slightly cut”
“But we will never know because transfer of funds could happen anytime,” Esperon said.
He considered the possibility that there might be foreign terrorists roaming Metro Manila, echoing what Philippine National Police chief Ronald de la Rosa said and also considering arrests made by the police of alleged Maute-linked terrorists in the country’s premier region.
Addressing the rise of violent extremism in the Philippines and in other nations is “obviously not an easy task,” US Ambassador Sung Kim said also on Tuesday during the launch of the US Embassy together with the
Philippine government of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies Countering Violent Extremism workshop.
“As all of you know, the true strategy for dealing with violent extremism is to prevent the next crisis by focusing on the underlying issues that give rise to the violent extremism in the first place,” Kim said. “This is obviously not an easy task.”