Ex-Prof Likely to Lead IS in Southeast Asia: Malaysian Police Chief

Hareez Lee
Kuala Lumpur
171016-MY-mahmud-620.jpg This screengrab from a video released by the Philippine army shows Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the Islamic State affiliate in Southeast Asia, (seated, center), and other militant leaders planning an attack on the southern Philippine city of Marawi, at an undisclosed location, June 18, 2017.
Handout/Philippine Army/AFP

Malaysian university professor-turned-militant Mahmud Ahmad likely will take over as head of the Islamic State (IS) Southeast Asia affiliate following the killing of Filipino Isnilon Hapilon in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, Malaysia’s police chief told BenarNews on Monday.

Mahmud was among planners of the deadly siege of Marawi launched by IS-inspired militants in May, and is believed to be leading a dwindling enemy force there after the death of Hapilon, according to Inspector General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun.

“From information we have, Dr. Mahmud is still alive. He survived the attack,” Fuzi told BenarNews.

A second militant leader, Omarkhayam Maute, was killed with Hapilon in a predawn clash in Marawi on Monday, Philippine military officials confirmed. Hapilon, a leader of the southern Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf (ASG), which is notorious for taking people hostage for ransom, became chief of IS’s regional branch last year.

Mahmud, 39, has been described as the “money man” who financed the ongoing Marawi attack and trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s while studying at Islamabad Islamic University. He is a former lecturer of Islamic studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, one of Malaysia’s top universities.

“What we gathered so far showed that he would most likely be the next leader with the deaths of Hapilon and Maute. He will be taking over the leadership,” Fuzi said.

In July, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank, said in a report that Mahmud likely would assume a top role because of his position within the IS chain of command.

“Dr. Mahmud appears to be senior to anyone operating in Indonesia, meaning whatever the inter-group frictions, all recognize a chain of command within the ISIS hierarchy that they are obliged to obey by virtue of their oath,” according to the IPAC report, “Marawi, the ‘East Asia Wilayah’ and Indonesia,” which referred to Islamic State by another acronym.

“This suggests that after Marawi is finally cleared, Dr. Mahmud, if he survives, could play a critical role both in terms of regrouping in the Philippines as well as coordinating return and placement of Southeast Asian fighters from the Middle East and setting a regional strategy for further attacks,” IPAC said.


In June, a Malaysian official who asked to remain anonymous, told BenarNews that Mahmud was among the most skilled militants who could take over for Hapilon.

Additionally, Mahmud knew secret escape routes from the southern Philippines, according to the official.

“Besides being a bomb expert and a seaman, Mahmud is also very proficient in the dialects used by the Philippines militants, apart from the other languages he has mastered such as Malay, English and Arabic,” the official said then.

Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia and a BenarNews columnist, said Mahmud had grand plans for the region.

“Mahmud planned to develop the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah as a transit point for South Asian and Southeast Asian recruits to train and fight in the Philippines,” Gunaratna wrote in a June column.

Along with funding the militants in Marawi, Mahmud was responsible for recruiting foreign fighters. IPAC described him as having a “one door” policy of creating a single channel to send foreign fighters to join the militants.

“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr. Mahmud ... he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC director Sidney Jones told Reuters.

High alert

Now, Malaysian authorities especially in the eastern Borneo state of Sabah, a state bordering the southern Philippines, are on high alert guarding against the possibility that Mahmud could try to flee Marawi and return to Malaysia.

“We are monitoring because he is a threat to our security,” Fuzi told Benar.

A senior intelligence officer from Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command said the deaths of Hapilon and Maute would not affect ongoing operations.

“To us, it only means a cross-border criminal has been eliminated, if the reports are true. But this does not mean we can let our guard down as usually another leader crops up to take over,” the official, who declined to be named, told BenarNews.

In the nearby southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf has been “quiet” on kidnappings lately as members battle the Philippine military in Marawi, but other ASG commanders who were not involved may turn to Sabah to replenish funding, the official said.

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines joined forces this year in launching coordinated sea and air patrols to stop ASG from kidnapping boat crews and holding sailors for ransom.

“This happens when they are in need of money to buy weapons. So we cannot afford to relax,” the official said.

Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and BenarNews staff in Manila and Marawi, Philippines, contributed to this report.


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