PHILIPPINE National Police (PNP) chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa revealed on Monday that the Islamic State (IS) has a new “emir” or leader in Southeast Asia, Malaysian terrorist Amin Baco.
Baco was earlier reported as having been killed by the military during clearing operations in Marawi City, which the IS-linked Maute group attacked on May 23.
The deaths of IS emir and Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute led to the end of the fighting on October 23.
De la Rosa said Baco survived the five-month long fighting. “We have received reports that Amin Baco is still in the group. He assumed the position as the new emir,” he said in a new briefing in Camp Crame.
But Baco’s whereabouts are unknown. Baco was last seen in the main battle area of Marawi with 30 other Maute stragglers.
“It’s either he is on his way out or he had already left. It’s still unconfirmed,” de la Rosa said.
De la Rosa relayed the police’s intelligence report that Baco was last seen with three companions: two Indonesians and one Malaysian.
De la Rosa reiterated that Baco not only controlled the 30 remaining Maute stragglers in Marawi, but also the whole IS in Southeast Asia since Hapilon’s death.
“He’s not only leading the remaining stragglers, but also the whole Southeast Asia. He assumed the position of Isnilon Hapilon as emir in Southeast Asia,” de la Rosa said.
But defense and military officials on Monday downplayed de la Rosa’s revelations.
In a statement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said the terrorist group was “leaderless,” contrary to the claims of “some officials” that Baco was heading the IS for Southeast Asia.
“Contrary to [the]recent pronouncements by some officials that it is now headed by a certain Amin Baco, the AFP strongly believes that the group is now leaderless and without direction,” AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said.
“Amin Baco is believed to have been among those killed in Marawi recently. Baco’s remains is now the subject of an ongoing aggressive search,” he added.
He also downplayed claims that the remaining Maute group stragglers would be able to influence the overall security situation of Marawi City.
In a separate news conference, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also debunked claims made by the PNP chief, saying the Maute group had already “splintered” and that government forces continued to hunt Baco down.
“He is not [the new IS leader for southeast Asia]…I think that he can no longer amass that number of troops like what Isnilon brought to Marawi City, about close to a thousand fighters [that were]fully equipped and fully armed and fully supplied with ammunition,” Lorenzana told reporters on the sidelines of the 78th anniversary of the Department of National Defense.
Unlike de la Rosa, Lorenzana was unable to give an estimate of the remaining Maute stragglers.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command and one of the ground commanders in Marawi, said he was hopeful that Baco was among those already killed, along with an Indonesian named Mahalam and Abdullah, one of the sons left by Hapilon.
Also on Monday, Task Group Ranao deputy commander Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. reported that government forces killed nine more Maute stragglers in Marawi on Sunday.
Among those killed was Ibrahim Maute alias Abu Jamil, a cousin of Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, the founders of the IS-linked Maute group.
with RJ CARBONELL