The head of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, who figures on the US “most wanted terrorists” list, was killed on Monday in the battle to reclaim a militant-held Philippines city, officials said.
Isnilon Hapilon’s reported death came during a final push to end the nearly five-month siege of Marawi, a battle that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and raised fears that IS was seeking to set up a regional base in the southern Philippines. [restrict]
President Rodrigo Duterte and security analysts say Hapilon has been a key figure in the jihadist outfit’s drive to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate as they suffer battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria.
The military said the long-haired leader was killed in a dawn offensive alongside Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who allied with Hapilon to plot the takeover of the city.
“It’s a big deal for us that they were killed,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters, adding that Hapilon’s death was a symbolic blow to regional militancy because he had been declared the local emir of the Islamic State group.
Philippine military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano showed reporters a photo of what he said was Hapilon’s bloodied face.
The US government had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to Hapilon’s arrest, describing the 51-year-old as a senior leader of the southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf group, which the US considers a “foreign terrorist organisation”.
Ano said Philippine ground forces launched an assault before dawn, sparking a four-hour gun battle that lead to the two leaders’ deaths.
DNA tests will be carried out on the two bodies because of the reward offer from the US and Philippine governments, Lorenzana said.
“The Marawi incident is almost over and we may announce the termination of hostilities in a couple of days,” Lorenzana said.
Philippine authorities have made several previous announcements on the imminent end of the conflict, but observers believe this time the forecast is likely to be accurate.
Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon, authorities said.
Since then more than 1,000 people have been killed and 400,000 residents displaced.
Duterte has imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines to quell the militant threat.
– ‘Centre of gravity’ –
The insurgents have withstood a relentless US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with troops that have left large parts of Marawi in ruins.
Defence chiefs last month said other Philippine militant leaders had been killed in the battle for Marawi.
Troops were still pursuing dozens of fighters in the battle zone including Indonesians and Malaysians, Ano 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.
There were still 22 hostages left along with 39 relatives of the militants, they added.
The restive south of the mainly Catholic Philippines is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency and to extremist gangs that have declared allegiance to IS including the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.
Hapilon is believed to have been involved in the 2001 kidnappings of three Americans, two of whom were later killed.
Hapilon was based in Basilan island in the strife-torn south but authorities said in January that he had moved to the Mautes’ base in Lanao del Sur province, 300 kilometres (180 miles) east, to create an alliance and to establish an IS presence there.
Marawi is Lanao del Sur’s capital and largest city.
The deaths of Hapilon and Maute signal the end of the militant groups, Ano said.
“This means their centre of gravity has crumbled,” he told reporters.
“We just needed to get these two (leaders) to make sure the leadership, the centre of gravity falls, and elsewhere even the Maute-ISIS (fighters) in other areas would also crumble.”
However an analyst said the deaths of the leaders would likely prompt retaliatory attacks from their followers and allies, with young leaders seeking to take their place.
“Terrorism will take a new form in the post-Marawi period because these terrorist groups linked to ISIS continue to innovate and their actions are evolving,” Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told AFP. [/restrict]