A top lieutenant of an Islamic State-affiliated terror group was slain in a gun battle with troops on the southern Philippine island of Jolo on Monday, while a bomb maker for the group was arrested separately a day earlier, the military said.
An hour-long firefight ensued after members of the 45th Infantry Battalion were sent to a village in remote Patikul town on information that a 40-man Abu Sayyaf unit was seen in the area, said Lt. Col. Alaric Delos Santos, regional military spokesman.
“The troops scouring the encounter site recovered the body of the slain Abu Sayyaf member, war material and other personal belongings,” said Delos Santos, quoting a report by 45th Infantry Battalion commanding officer Lt. Col. Reuben Guinolbay.
The body was identified as that of Arsibar Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf subordinate leader and a cousin of Mundi Sawadjaan.
Mundi Sawadjaan is believed to have masterminded the twin suicide bombings in Jolo island last month that killed at least 15 people and injured more than 70.
There was no sighting of Mundi Sawadjaan Monday, nor of an Indonesian couple he is believed to be grooming as suicide bombers, a military progress report on the fighting said.
The Sawadjaans’ elusive uncle, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, is the leader of the Philippine branch of IS and one of the commanders of the Jolo branch of Abu Sayyaf. Unconfirmed reports say that he was slain in an earlier clash, though the military has not confirmed this.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, a team of the elite Special Action Force and police intelligence operatives captured Hajili Banah, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf unit in Basilan, from his hideout in Recodo village in the city of Zamboanga.
Banah, also known as Hashim Saripada, is known to have planned and carried out bomb attacks, and is a follower of Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the military said.
"The arrest of Saripada will greatly debilitate the group particularly in the planning and execution of their bomb plots," said Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., commander of Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom).
Banah has two warrants of arrest against him, on charges of multiple murder and attempted murder, issued by a local court in Basilan, he said.
Vinluan added that the team found a gallon of ammonium nitrate fuel oil, which is a chemical explosive, blasting caps, a detonating cord, a fragmentation grenade and a backpack at Banah’s hideout.
Saripada joined the Abu Sayyaf group in 2002 as a “financial and personnel facilitator” of the group in Basilan and of foreign fighters going to the Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan and Sulu.
Vinluan said Saripada was believed to be involved in planning a suicide bombing in July 2018 in Basilan that killed 11 military personnel, as well as the January 2019 twin bomb attack inside a Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo that killed at least 23 people.
“Saripada served as the planner and supervisor of the whole operation,” Vinluan said, of the 2019 Jolo bombing.
He said that while there was no clear evidence that the Philippine-based IS affiliates receive instructions from their counterparts in the Middle East, threats from the group were still their “primary concern.”
The threat level in the region “continues to exist,” Vinluan said.
“To date, there is no clear evidence that IS-inspired groups here are connected with IS central in Iraq,” Vinluan told BenarNews.
“However, linkages cannot be discounted since they continue to tag themselves as affiliates – and they use platforms such as social media as a hub for communication and propaganda.”
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato city, and Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, southern Philippines, contributed to this report.