ONE of the United States’ most wanted terrorists may have escaped a five-week battle with Islamist terrorists in a southern Philippine city, which began with a raid to capture him, the military said Saturday.
Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant said to be the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group in Southeast Asia, has not been seen in the battle zone in Marawi City, said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, head of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
An attempt by government troops to arrest Hapilon in Marawi on May 23 triggered a rampage by Islamist militants flying black IS flags and backed by some foreign fighters who seized parts of the mainly Muslim city.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Marawi and the entire southern island of Mindanao, unleashing an offensive to crush what he said was an attempt by the terror group to establish a province in the area.
“He (Hapilon) has not been seen in the area. We have some reports that he was already able to slip somewhere but as of now we are still confirming the reports,” Galvez said in an interview with DZBB radio station.
Asked if Hapilon was on the run, he said: “Yes, yes because reportedly he suffered a lot of casualties. Majority of his group, more than half, were casualties.”
‘Fight to the end’
Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and has a $5-million bounty on his head from the US government, which has his name on its “most wanted” terror list.
He leads a faction of the terror and kidnap group Abu Sayyaf that has pledged allegiance to IS.
Security analysts say he has been recognized by IS as its “amir,” or leader, in Southeast Asia, a region where the group wants to establish a province.
The military says Hapilon’s group had joined forces with another armed militancy, the Maute group, to launch the Marawi siege, now in its second month.
On Saturday, security forces continued intense air raids and artillery fire on pockets of Marawi still occupied by the militants, while troops fought house-to-house gunbattles.
“We have gained substantial ground,” said Galvez, the military commander.
But military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said he expects the fighting to continue for a while.
“These people are suicidal. Our assessment is that they will really fight to the end,” Padilla said, also on DZBB.
He said the militants are seeking shelter in bunkers and tunnels built by Marawi residents to protect themselves against possible clan wars and unrest related to a Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.
Nearly 300 militants and 67 government troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures.
Galvez said there are “strong indications” that two or three of the Maute brothers—among the key players in the siege—had been killed, including Omarkhayam Maute, believed to be the group’s top leader.
‘Omar still alive’
A source told The Manila Times however that key leaders of the terrorists laying siege to Marawi City in Lanao del Sur were still alive.
Military officials said they were validating reports that the Maute brothers and a Malaysian terrorist were killed in a gunfight with government troopers weeks ago.
However, the source said some of the top leaders were only wounded in the month-long fighting.
He also said that less than 30 militants were killed while less than 100 of around 500 combined fighters of the “Dawlah Islamiyah or Islamic State” were also treated after being wounded in various clashes.
The group, meanwhile, denied that Omar and Madie Maute were killed.
Omar is among the key leaders of the terrorists linked to the IS. He has also been linked to the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement and the Ghuraba, groups seen hoisting the IS flag in several parts of the country in recent years.
The source showed proof that Omar was able to send messages using his personal social media account.
“To all people with heart-ache… Die in your rage,” Omar said, in a post on June 19 when he replied to a certain Abukhalid Hadjihassan who had asked Omar’s whereabouts and cursed him for the destruction of Marawi City.
His brother Madie also posted a photo of himself alive in social media.
Omar was previously reported to have been killed by the military during clashes last year in Butig town in Lanao del Sur, 35 kilometers away from Marawi City. The report turned out to be false.
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the AFP’s Joint Task Force Marawi, said the military was “validating” reports that Omar was killed while AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Año said Omar was “more or less” dead along with a Malaysian terrorist, Mahmud Ahmad, who reportedly died on June 7 after being wounded in a firefight last month.
IS announced last year its goal of organizing “soldiers of the caliphate” in Southeast Asia under its “East Asia Province” also known as Dawlah-ul Islamiyah Wilayat al-Mashriq.