The Philippine government doubled the bounty for a Filipino man believed to be among likely successors to Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State regional commander who was killed in the battle of Marawi last year, the military said Friday.
The government is now offering to pay up to 6 million pesos (U.S. $112,600) for information leading to the capture or death of Humam Abdul Najid (also known as Abu Dar). He escaped from the southern city of Marawi as troops closed in last October, military task force deputy chief Col. Romeo Brawner said.
The bounty is twice the amount of 3 million pesos ($56,300) that been offered on his head earlier and shows that Abu Dar’s capture or death has been prioritized, Brawner said. Abu Dar also went by the names Humam Abdul, Ustadz Humam or Humam Abdul Najib to confuse the military.
“Local officials pitched in for the additional reward money because they want all those behind the siege captured or dead,” Brawner said, adding that 20 militants who had joined the Marawi battle surrendered this week.
“Some terrorists could have joined evacuees but, fortunately, the residents told us so we apprehended some. We are already interrogating them,” Brawner said.
After receiving zero information from the public last year, people are voluntarily helping by providing key information, he said.
Militants who escaped from the Marawi battle were preparing to launch small, lone-wolf attacks across the south, said security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, head of the think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
Abu Dar could be preparing suicide bombings elsewhere in Mindanao, the country’s southern third, where decades of Muslim militancy have left pockets of deep poverty, Banlaoi said.
“Right now they don’t have the same capability. It will take time for them to rebuild the same kind capability that enabled them to mount attacks in Marawi,” he told BenarNews. “That’s why their main focus is massive recruitment, regrouping and consolidation of their forces.”
The smaller attacks were meant to send a message to the world that the Islamic State (IS) branch in the Philippines remains alive and “needs support financially and morally,” he said.
Earlier this week, the military launched air and ground assaults against Abu Dar’s group in remote areas of Lanao del Sur province, close to Marawi, leaving five gunmen dead and displacing more than 11,000 people.
Abu Dar, who was born in Mindanao but studied at an Islamic school in the northern Philippines, was reported to have undergone explosives training in Afghanistan in 2005, according to military intelligence.
He returned to Mindanao in 2012 and founded the militant group Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM), which operated in areas near Marawi.
Before the siege that began on May 23, 2017, Abu Dar was aiding foreign fighters efforts to get into Mindanao, putting them in areas near Marawi and laying the groundwork for the eventual takeover of the city led by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS in the Philippines.
Hapilon, joined by fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, remained in Marawi for five months, turning the once prosperous Islamic city into a virtual wasteland. The military killed Hapilon in October, effectively ending the siege, although dozens of militants escaped.
Abu Dar is one of the cousins of Omarkhayyam Maute, one of the Filipino leaders of the Marawi attack who died with Hapilon.
Apart from Abu Dar, the military has launched an operation against Abu Turaipe, the elusive leader of a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) who openly pledged allegiance to IS.
The BIFF is a splinter group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s main separatist group, which signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
Turaipe’s forces number in the dozens and have been engaged in hit-and-run attacks with the military.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.