Updated at 6:26 p.m. ET on 2017-04-12
The Philippine military announced Wednesday they had shot dead an Abu Sayyaf militant leader in a raid that, one expert said, signaled the country can defeat the Islamic State, which has used the local group to expand in Southeast Asia.
Muammar Askali (also known as Abu Rami), who appeared in videos of hostages being executed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), died in a shootout Tuesday with security forces that also left three soldiers and a police officer dead as militants launched a failed raid on the central Philippine island resort of Bohol, news reports said.
Bohol is a popular tourist destination far from ASG’s base in the southern Philippines.
“Askali is the leader of the IS Group in Sulu, composed mostly of ASG. His death demonstrates that both Philippines National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines can defeat IS in the Philippines,” according to Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on Southeast Asian extremist groups and a BenarNews columnist.
ASG has pledged its allegiance to Islamic State and, before his death, Abu Rami was working with Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of IS Philippines, Islamic State’s local affiliate, he told BenarNews.
In late January, Isnilon was reported to have been injured in a strike carried out by the Philippine military in Lanao del Sur, on the southern island of Mindanao.
On Wednesday, security forces were hunting for more suspected ASG gunmen, following the foiled raid in which the militants were planning to kidnap as many as a dozen tourists from the area, Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Eduardo Ano said.
Officials identified the body of Abu Rami through post-mortem photos shown to captured ASG suspects, and recovered the body from the scene of the gun battle in Inabanga, Bohol, Ano told the Associated Press.
“This is a major blow to the Abu Sayyaf,” Ano said, according to AP. “If they have further plans to kidnap innocent people somewhere, they will now have to think twice.”
Abu Rami led several militants who had traveled to Bohol by three speedboats from their jungle strongholds in the southern province of Sulu in an apparent bid to carry out kidnappings, Ano said.
“They are expecting probably to kidnap four or five persons per boat, so at least 10 to 12 kidnap victims was their (overall) plan,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.
In Jakarta on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Indonesian military welcomed the news of Abu Rami’s death.
“We are also delighted. Abu Sayyaf is a terror group, which has terrorised many people, among them Indonesian citizens,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Wuryanto told BenarNews.
“So, we appreciate what has been done by the Philippines’ military.”
In the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, a security source told BenarNews that Abu Rami also held three Malaysian sailors who were rescued recently by the Philippines military.
“The Abu Sayyaf very rarely leave their strongholds in Tawi-Tawi and Jolo, and leave it to other criminals to do the kidnappings for them,” the source said.
Meanwhile, the chief of police in Sabah as well as the head of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) did not respond immediately to requests for comment from BenarNews.
ASG, a group linked with Islamic State, has become notorious for kidnapping and holding people hostage for ransom over the years, and has beheaded some of their Western captives. Since last year, the group has kidnapped dozens of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors off ships traveling in waters between the southern Philippines and Borneo island.
Most of the Indonesians and Malaysians have been freed, but Philippine officials said Abu Rami was involved directly in the video-taped executions of Canadian and German hostages in 2016 and 2017. Among other hostages beheaded by ASG was a Malaysian citizen, Bernard Then, who was abducted from a seaside restaurant in the eastern Malaysia state of Sabah in May 2015.
Abu Rami was known as a spokesman for ASG tasked with issuing messages to media about imminent executions and who appeared in videos showing beheadings of prisoners.
The failed raid in Bohor occurred on the day when the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia were scheduled to launch long-awaited joint patrols in common waters and aimed at warding off piracy and kidnappings at sea by ASG militants.
But the launch of the coordinated sea patrols, which was to take place from a naval base in Sabah, was postponed indefinitely, according to Malaysian officials, because the Philippine defense minister could not attend it due to conflicting travel plans.
Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.