A military offensive has apparently injured the leader of Islamic State’s affiliate in the Philippines who is linked to a newly uncovered terrorist cell in Malaysia, as well as killed four militants including a Malaysian, according to reports published Friday.
Isnilon Hapilon, reportedly fled from a camp in Lanao del Sur, a province in the southern Philippines, after being injured in a military operation on Wednesday and Thursday that consisted of ground and air strikes, Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told the Associated Press (AP).
Hapilon suffered an arm injury and had to be carried by others during his escape, Philippine television news ABS-CBN reported. The news reports did not identify the Malaysian who was killed.
Terrorism experts have described Hapilon, a former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, as the head of IS Philippines – which consists of three militant groups that have sworn allegiance to the Middle East-based Islamic State group – and Malaysian and Indonesian supporters of the group last year referred to him as their regional “emir” in an IS propaganda video.
His reported injury is the second blow to IS Philippines this month. On Jan. 5, another IS leader based in the southern Philippines, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, who was known as Tokboy, was shot dead by security forces on a beach in Mindanao island, officials said.
He was the founder and leader of Ansarul Khilafa Philippines (AKP), one of the three groups that make up the Philippine branch of IS, according to experts.
Reacting to the reports about the killings of the four militants and the wounding of Hapilon, Malaysia’s police chief told BenarNews that security forces in the eastern state of Sabah – which is close to the southern Philippines – were ready to intercept any militants trying to flee from the Philippine offensive.
“We fully support Philippines forces’ assault on the terrorist groups in the south. We will give our fullest cooperation,” Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said late Friday. “Our front-line troops have been put on alert for any attempt by these terrorist members to flee the south and take refuge in Sabah.”
Earlier this week, Khalid announced that police had arrested a Filipino and two Bangladeshis along with a Malaysian woman. He said the four were part of a new IS cell that planned to use Sabah as a transit point for sending militants to the Philippines.
The cell had received orders from Hapilon and a former lecturer at Malaya University, Mahmud Ahmad, Khalid said in a statement issued Monday.
‘A question of time’
Hapilon leads al Harakat ul Islamiyah Basilan, one of the groups that make up IS Philippines, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a BenarNews contributor who directs the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and has referred to Hapilon as the overall leader of IS Philippines.
A former Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) deputy leader responsible for the Basilan area, Hapilon broke away from ASG and unified several groups pledging allegiance to IS and inviting foreign fighters.
“With President Dutarte vowing to dismantle the IS-centric threat groups in the Philippines, Hapilon relocated from Basilan in Western Mindanao to Central Mindanao in December 2016,” Gunaratna told BenarNews on Friday.
“As Hapilon is not familiar with Central Mindanao, he has become vulnerable to injury and death. It is a question of time that he will be captured or killed."
Hapilon (pictured below in a notice circulated by the FBI) is on the U.S. government’s list of most wanted terrorists for murder of a United States National outside the United States; hostage taking resulting in death; conspiracy to use and carry a firearm during a crime of violence; and using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. The FBI is offering a reward of up to U.S. $5 million for information leading to his apprehension or conviction.
“Hapilon gained global notoriety in May 2001 when he and other ASG members kidnapped 20 tourists, including three U.S. nationals, from the Dos Palmas Resort on Palawan,” according to the Counter Extremism Project. “ASG operatives beheaded one of the American hostages, Guillermo Sobero, and referred to his killing as a ‘gift’ to then-Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.”