Authorities and leaders of Muslim communities on Monday confirmed reports that Abdul Basit Usman, the suspected bomb expert who carries a $1-million bounty on his head, was killed in a gunbattle in Maguindanao.
But as to who pulled the trigger that ended the search for the Filipino who was listed among America’s “most wanted” terrorists remains a mystery.
Malacañang and the military released a photo of the dead Usman.
Security forces had been hunting Usman since he escaped from a January police raid that killed Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan, an alleged bomb maker who was the subject of a $5-million US government bounty.
Usman, a Filipino, was also identified by the military as well as US authorities as a bomb-making expert with links to the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organizations.
US authorities consider Usman as a threat to US and Filipino citizens and interests. He is believed to have orchestrated several bombings that have killed, injured and maimed many innocent civilians, a briefer from the United States Rewards for Justice Program read.
“Basit has been indicted in the Philippines for his role in multiple bombing incidents since 2003, and the Government of the Philippines has issued a warrant for his arrest. He is believed to be hiding in central Mindanao,” the briefer said.
Security forces accuse Usman of carrying out at least nine bombing incidents in the South, including an attack on the port city of General Santos in 2002 that killed 15 people and wounded 60 others.
Usman was also among the personalities involved in the Islamic State (IS) or “black flag movement” in the Philippines.
According to intelligence sources, he is the head of the Ansarul Khilafah (supporters of the caliphate) operating in southern Mindanao including General Santos City, which had pledged allegiance to the IS caliphate last year.
Usman was among the “high-valued targets” who escaped the anti-terrorist operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that resulted in the death of 44 police commandos on January 25.
According to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), he was killed in a remote mountainous area while being escorted by its members, the rebel group’s vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar said.
“We can confirm that Usman is dead and his body was buried in accordance with Muslim tradition,” Jaafar told Agence France-Presse, but he refused to say who killed him.
The military, however, said Usman was killed by no less than his men who allegedly fought among themselves over the $1-million bounty on the wanted bomb-maker.
The Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., said Usman had been killed, but that it remained unclear as to who killed him.
Citing field reports, Catapang added that Usman and five of his unidentified cohorts were killed in a shootout on Sunday morning near an MILF camp in Guindulungan, Maguindanao.
“Basit Usman is dead, as to the circumstances of what happened during that encounter, it’s up to [investigators],” he told reporters.
The military said five of Usman’s followers had also died in the battle, and that some of his own men may have double-crossed him.
Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala, the military spokesman, said they “believe there was fighting among Usman’s followers because of the monetary reward put on his head.”
“Sources on the ground believe that there was infighting among Usman’s followers fueled by the tussle for the huge monetary reward that was put on his head,” Catapang said.
“The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] is validating reports that Usman became distrustful of some of his own men after a series of encounters between the AFP and his group in the past two months,” he added.
Earlier reports from the provincial police said Usman was killed by members of the MILF’s 118th Base Command in Barangay Muti.
The reports said Usman and five of his unidentified cohorts were killed in a shootout with members of the the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Sitio Takeneken.
The shootout happened near the vicinity of Camp Afghan, a temporary relocation site for MILF members who left their homes after a massive police and military operation against the BIFF was launched in the last week of February.
The AFP said the MILF members who are temporarily staying at the camp rushed to the scene and discovered the dead bodies. Also found were an M60 general purpose machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and a caliber 5.56mm Bushmaster rifle.
MILF’s Jaafar said Usman was killed as MILF rebels were escorting him to the group’s leaders to surrender, adding that he probably did not know he was being taken back to the MILF leaders.
“There was a firefight along the way. Usman could have sensed that he was being double-crossed,” Jaafar said.
He,however, refused to give any more details as to who killed Usman, saying only that the circumstances of the firefight were under investigation.
Moro leaders, police and various MILF officials also confirmed Usman’s death.
Guindulungan Mayor Midpantao Midtimbang and Maguindanao police director Senior Supt. Nickson Muksan on Sunday afternoon made the confirmation, citing a report from Barangay Muti Chairman Gayak Midtimbang.
MILF leaders including Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) liaison officer Toks Opham and Kagui Manan Masabpi, logistic/supply officer of Ustadz Wahid Tundok, commander of the 118th base command, also confirmed Usman’s killing.
Malacanang also on Monday assured that the MILF’s role in Usman’s killing will not change government findings that MILF rebels were among those who participated in the Mamasapano clash.
In a news conference, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said t the Department of Justice’s recommendation to charge some MILF members with murder and theft over the killing of the 44 police commandos still stands.
“Based on the study and case build-up, they have findings… on who are responsible for the deaths of the PNP-SAF [police commandos]and this has not changed…Our laws will still be implemented,” Coloma told reporters.
He said even before Usman’s death, there had been several instances when the MILF had shown that it is committed to uphold the peace process with the government.
According to Coloma, the MILF has been helping the Philippine government in various law enforcement operations.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE