Philippine security forces killed at least five suspected militants in fresh airstrikes targeting Filipino fighters allied with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) who had escaped from the southern city of Marawi last year, officials said Monday.
The target of the air and ground assault operation, which displaced more than 1,500 families, was a group led by Humam Abdul Najib (also known as Abu Dar). He is a cousin of Omarkhayyam Maute, one of the key Filipino leaders of the Marawi siege who was killed in October 2017 along with IS leader Isnilon Hapilon, when the five-month battle there ended.
“The firefight was part of the fulfillment of the promise of the military to go after the remnants of the Maute-ISIS group,” ground commander Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner said, using another acronym of Islamic State.
“This was the result of months-long intelligence operations as well as the cooperation of the local government and the citizens,” he said, adding that “as of now, there are reports indicating that five militants have been killed.”
Brawner said the assaults on Sunday provoked fighting in Tubaran, a town in Lanao del Sur province where troops found empty ammunition boxes in a captured militant camp.
He said ground forces were under orders to “terminate the remaining forces” of the enemy by hitting their lairs.
“Our target is Abu Dar. He is the only remaining leader of Marawi siege alive,” he said.
Born on Mindanao island and educated at an Islamic school in the northern Philippines, Abu Dar was reported to have undergone explosives training in Afghanistan in 2005, before returning to Mindanao in 2012.
He co-founded the militant group Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM), which operated in areas near Marawi, intelligence officials said.
Before the siege in Marawi last year, Abu Dar was helping foreign fighters enter Mindanao, by putting them up in areas near Marawi and laying the groundwork for the eventual siege, they added.
Brawner said Abu Dar’s group has continued recruiting by using money to lure teenagers to the IS fold.
“They are just small but their recruitment is ongoing. If we talk about seasoned fighters, there are only a few of them now,” Brawner said.
A 21-year-old militant who managed to escape last year’s siege told BenarNews that 200 fighters had recently joined the organization.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said militants operating in the south would have a hard time gaining traction in the region.
“It looks like there’s a successor for the leader of Maute and they were able to engage in firefights with our troops. But there’s no need to worry because they only have few members and, with the martial law, they will have a hard time making tangible gains,” Roque said.
Maute’s group joined forces with Hapilon’s faction in May 2017, taking over the Islamic city of Marawi and triggering the fiercest fighting not seen in the south in recent years. They were backed by fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
More than 1,200 people were killed in the fighting, most of them militants.