Four Islamic State-linked suspects were arrested Thursday in connection with a string of attacks in the southern Philippines, police said, as authorities charged six other suspected militants, including a Swedish national, for alleged terrorism-related offenses after catching them in the region earlier this week.
The four suspects apprehended in Zamboanga city were identified as Aljiver Habibula, 35; Omar Julaspih, 22; Rody Marail, 36; and Nash Amik, 32. The men are believed to be members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a small gang of self-styled Islamic militants operating in the south, said Col. Thomas Joseph Martir, the local police commander.
“They are members of the Abu Sayyaf Group Urban Terrorist Group operating in Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga City,” Martir said.
Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf leader, became chief of the Philippine branch of Islamic State (IS) after Isnilon Hapilon was killed during fighting at the end of an IS takeover of southern Marawi city in 2017.
While carrying out the arrests police recovered bomb-making components, communication devices, electronic parts and ammonium nitrate, which is commonly used to build home-made explosives, he said.
Three days before Thursday’s arrests, police and military elements caught Swedish man Hassan Akgun and five Filipinos during a raid in General Santos, another city in the Philippine south.
Charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives were filed against Akgun, although authorities had not yet established a link between the Abu Sayyaf and his group of suspected militants, Philippine National Police spokesman Brig. General Bernard Banac told BenarNews.
“He is really working with international terror groups. As to what really is his task, it is still under validation,” Banac said by phone.
Dozens of foreign militants are believed to be on the run in the southern island of Mindanao, two years after Hapilon and his top commanders were slain in the battle of Marawi. Five months of fighting between militants and government forces there killed more than 1,200 people, including militants, soldiers and civilians.
Some militants, including some whom security officials described as foreigners, escaped in parts of Mindanao and have been trying to replenish their ranks to launch more attacks. So far, they have not been able to succeed, largely because the south remains under tight military control.
It is believed that Agkun was working with a group linked to IS, but it is too early to say whether he had any links with the new IS leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command.
“We are still getting more details as to his work,” he said, adding that the terror groups were “now finding it hard to recruit for new members because of strong support of the residents and local officials in our campaign.”
Mark Navales and Richel V. Umel and contributed to this report from Cotabato and Iligan City, Philippines.