Philippine counter-terrorist police have arrested a Filipina on suspicion of serving as a top online recruiter for the extremist group Islamic State (IS), Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said Wednesday.
Karen Aizha Hamidon, the widow of a slain suspected leader of Ansarul Khilafa Philippines, an IS-linked militant group based in the southern part of the country, was taken into custody last week and was being held by the Philippine Justice Department’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
The announcement of her arrest came a day after President Rodrigo Duterte declared the southern city of Marawi liberated from IS-linked militants after the group’s Southeast Asian chief, Isnilon Hapilon, was confirmed killed in fighting there on Monday.
Hamidon’s actions “clearly denote that she was in a conspiracy with the rebels” in Marawi, Aguirre said.
“So, in my opinion, she should be charged not only for inciting to rebellion but of the crime of rebellion itself,” Aguirre said as he presented the burqa-clad woman at a news conference in Manila.
Married to militants
Hamidon was married to Mohammad Jaafar Maguid (alias “Tokboy”), who founded and led the Ansarul Khilafa Philippines, one of the southern militant groups that had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, according to officials. In January, he was killed in a gun battle with police in the southern city of Sarangani.
Officials said Tokboy was a bomb expert who trained under Malaysian militant Marwan, who was killed by Philippine security forces during a January 2015 raid in the southern town of Mamasapano that also left 44 police commandos dead. Tokboy was wanted for a series of crimes in the south, including robbery, extortion and arson.
His death was described as a significant blow to IS on the southern island of Mindanao. He reportedly succeeded in enticing young, impressionable youths into joining his group, and was said to have infiltrated several university campuses on the island of Mindanao.
Adept at using social-media tools, Tokboy was also known to have made important connections to IS fighters in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, a top intelligence source told BenarNews.
It was yet unclear whether Tokboy had shared his contacts with Hamidon, the source said.
Hamidon is also the former wife of Muhammad Shamin bin Mohammed (alias Sidek), a Singaporean allegedly linked to IS. It was not clear, however, who among the two men she had married first.
Sidek was arrested in Singapore in September 2015 on suspicion of being involved in terrorist-related activities, and held under the city-state’s Internal Security Act, according to the Singaporean home ministry.
Last year, Hamidon managed to recruit several Indian nationals to join militants in the south, the NBI said. She used social-media platforms such as Telegram to recruit and encourage young Muslim sympathizers to join the militants in Marawi, which was overrun by Hapilon’s group with help from foreign militants. Hamidon’s middle name appears as “Aisha” on social media accounts.
With this week’s killings of Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, another militant leader, Mahmud Ahmad – an ex-university professor from Malaysia who was considered the brains behind the Marawi siege – is believed to be the top militant left there. He is said to be backed up by a dwindling force that includes fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Col. Romeo Brawner, the deputy commander of forces in Marawi, said Mahmud may have escaped or been killed.
“We are checking information that he is dead. Our ground troops know that he is inside but we have not heard anything about his movements,” Brawner told BenarNews.
Brawner said at least 22 hostages and less than 30 militants were still inside the main battle area along with their 39 dependents. Troops were scouring the area the size of two football fields, he said.
“Our operation is still ongoing to get the remaining militants. We [had] four wounded soldiers on Tuesday night,” Brawner said.
Officials said 164 soldiers and police have been killed while more than 1,700 soldiers were wounded since fighting erupted in late May. At least 822 enemy fighters and 47 civilians have also been killed.
Meanwhile, prominent Filipino architect Felino Palafox Jr., who has been tapped to help in the reconstruction of Marawi, recommended a war memorial to serve as a lesson on how terrorism could destroy a beautiful city.
“I’ve been in post-disaster rehabilitation, big earthquakes, tsunamis and big floods. Marawi is the worst,” he said.
“Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was destroyed, was just two buildings. We still believe that ground zero should be preserved as a lesson for future generations,” Palafox told reporters.
Security forces escorted a group of builders and developers around Marawi on Wednesday, and Palafox said many of them were shocked by the scale of destruction.
He said it would take the ruined city – which was bombed heavily by the military during operations to break the siege – at least 70 years to fully recover.