Philippine police said Wednesday they had arrested a suspected militant who was the top lieutenant of slain Islamic State (IS) Filipino leader Isnilon Hapilon and was wanted for kidnappings and the beheading of a captured soldier nearly two decades ago.
The suspect, identified as Hashim Abtaid (also known as Abu Imam), was arrested on Saturday in Jolo, an island in the deep south known as a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino militant group where Hapilon was considered a top leader.
“Residents themselves provided information that led to his capture,” said regional police director Chief Superintendent Graciano Mijares, adding that members of the elite Special Action Forces led the operation.
Abtaid’s arrest was announced exactly a year to the day that militants led by Hapilon laid siege to the southern city of Marawi, precipitating a battle that lasted five months and left about 1,200 dead – most of them militant fighters, according to the Philippine military.
Abtaid is recognized as one of the senior leaders of Abu Sayyaf operating in the Jolo archipelago.
He allegedly was involved in several high-profile criminal cases, including the abductions of 50 workers from a rubber plantation in nearby Basilan island in 2001, as well as the beheading of a captured army soldier in the same year.
“Abtaib is accused in seven separate criminal cases for kidnapping and serious illegal detention,” National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde said.
The suspect was undergoing tactical debriefing before he was to be presented to court, Albayalde said.
Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It is holding several hostages, including three Indonesians, one Vietnamese, one Dutchman and seven Filipinos.
In the past two weeks, the group abducted four people, including two policewomen in Jolo. But after clashes that left several of its members dead, the hostages were freed separately.
The U.S. State Department previously designated Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization affiliated with IS.
The Hapilon-led siege in Marawi triggered the most vicious cycle of militant violence seen in the south in recent years. Foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East joined in the fighting where militants went door-to-door and killed Christians.
Intelligence forces from the United States and Australia helped Philippine troops who ultimately killed Hapilon and Omarkhayyam Maute, another of the Filipino militant leaders, ending the battle of Marawi in October 2017.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.