MARAWI CITY: A dawn military offensive signaled the end of the road for the two top leaders of the five-month long terrorist siege of Marawi City on Monday.
Military troops killed Isnilon Hapilon, emir or chieftain of the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam “Omar” Maute, leader of a well-funded terrorist group that wanted to establish an IS province in Mindanao, in one of the buildings in the war-torn city.
It was a symbolic blow to regional militancy, considering Hapilon was also on the US “most wanted” list of terrorists, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.
The Maute Group overran Marawi, the country’s Islamic capital, on May 23, forcing President Rodrigo Duterte to cut short a visit to Moscow and declare martial law over Mindanao.
Fighting has killed more than 1,000 people, including 831 terrorists, and displaced 400,000 residents. There were still 22 hostages left along with 39 relatives of the militants, authorities said.
Troops were still pursuing dozens of fighters in the battle zone including Indonesians and Malaysians, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Año said, after rescuing 20 hostages over the weekend with a two-month-old baby among them.
Malaysian militant leader Mahmud Ahmad was still in Marawi, with authorities describing him as the “conduit” between IS and local militant groups.
Tip from a hostage
A tip from one of the rescued hostages at about 2 a.m. on Monday gave away the location of Hapilon and Omar Maute, Lorenzana said.
“We were supposed to go to Marawi with the President but we were prevailed upon by the commanders on the ground to postpone our trip because they were going to conduct the assault today,” he said.
“[Troops] were able to get a testimony from a hostage that was able to escape and the hostage was able to confirm the presence of Hapilon and Maute in a particular building, so that was the building we assaulted this morning,” he added.
Fighting lasted until 6 a.m. Seven other terrorists were killed in the firefight while 20 soldiers were wounded.
AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said that Maute was hit at the back of the head while Hapilon’s cause of death had yet to be confirmed by military officials on the ground.
Año said the original purpose of the operations in the establishment where Hapilon and Maute were found was to retrieve hostages.
“It’s an early morning encounter…because we already cornered [the Maute]in just one block and there were two buildings with hostages remaining, so the hostages were rescued and then fighting ensued which led to the killing of the two leaders,” he said.
$5M reward from US
The remains of Hapilon and Maute will still be subjected to DNA testing.
Monetary rewards for their capture or death, specifically from the US, will be forthcoming, Lorenzana said.
“I think Omar has a P5-million reward on his head and Isnilon has a $5-million reward on his head plus another P10 million from the [Philippine] government. So, it’s huge money,” the Defense chief said.
With the killing of the two terrorist leaders, Lorenzana said hostilities in Marawi City could end “in a couple of days.”
“This will help eradicate them once and for all, [although]they (IS) still have cells inside the country. We believe that they still have cells in Basilan, Sulu, also in Central Mindanao, but we will also get them,” he said.
Año also said the siege could end this week. The terrorists have been cornered within a two-hectare area, the AFP chief said.
As for the martial law declaration, military commanders still needed to assess the situation before making any recommendation to President Rodrigo Duterte, Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana also said the military was prepared for revenge attacks. The burial place of the two slain terrorists will not be disclosed, he said.
In September, Año confirmed that three Maute brothers—Abdullah, Maddie and Ottoh—were among the casualties of military operations in Marawi City.
He made this confirmation on September 18 after the rescue of Catholic priest Fr. Teresito Soganub and Dansalan Collage teacher Lordvin Acopio, who were both retrieved from the Bato Ali Mosque.
The AFP chief however said the deaths of the two Maute leaders signaled the end of the Maute terror group.
“This is the end of this Maute group. It means that their center of gravity is already crumbling…We are already saying that this war is nearing its end, we just needed to get these two leaders so we can assure [ourselves]that their leadership has already ended and the Maute-ISIS in other areas will crumble,” Año said, using another acronym for IS.
President Duterte was immediately informed of the developments and was “happy” with the news, according to Año.
“Actually, he (Duterte) is very happy. The news was already relayed to him and he is congratulating our troops. Sabi nga niya, nagbunga na (As what he said, it bore fruit),” he said in a news conference in Marawi City.
The day of the deaths of Hapilon and Maute “marks the triumph of good over evil,” Año declared.
‘Not the end of IS in the region’
Kumar Ramakrishna, a terrorism expert from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed that Hapilon’s death was a major blow to IS, but cautioned that it was far from the end of radical group in the strife-torn southern Philippines or Southeast Asia.
“Just because the Marawi siege is coming to an end does not mean the threat is over. ISIS-linked militants there will regroup… and lay low for a while, while rebuilding their strength,” he said, using another acronym for IS.
He said the leading Malaysian militant involved in the Marawi siege, Mahmud Ahmad – would if he is still alive likely rise up to lead the IS-linked fighters in the southern Philippines and stay in contact with the jihadists in the Middle East.
Ahmad is reported to be a university lecturer in his home country who was in charge of raising finances from abroad for the jihadists and recruitment.
It is not clear how many IS-supporting militants there are in Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million people, but many local militant outfits have pledged allegiance to the group.
Hundreds of militants are believed to have flocked to the Middle East to fight with IS – particularly from Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, and the Philippines.
Sidney Jones, head of Jakarta-based security think-tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, warned authorities now faced a growing threat of battle-hardened fighters returning to Southeast Asia as the noose closes on IS in the Middle East, with their former stronghold of Raqa close to being captured.
Authorities have been particularly concerned about a Southeast Asian unit of IS fighters in Syria, Khatibah Nusantara.
“I think the attention is going to shift back again to the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq,” she said.