Top Aide to Abu Sayyaf Leader Hapilon Arrested in Southern Philippines

Ritchel V. Umel, Froilan Gallardo and Dennis Santos
2017.06.19
Iligan City, Philippines
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170619-marawi1-620f.jpg Troops aboard a flat-bed truck prepare for deployment in Marawi to battle Islamic State-linked militants who have entrenched themselves in four villages, June 17, 2017.
Felipe Villamor/BenarNews

An aide to Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged local leader of the Islamic State, was arrested in the southern Philippines and authorities captured three suspected extremist militants who fled the fighting in Marawi City, military officials said Monday.

Hamsi Amajad Marani, considered a bomb expert by authorities, was arrested on Saturday in a predawn operation in Zamboanga city, 427 km (266 miles) southwest of Marawi, where government troops are locked in four weeks of vicious gun battles with Islamic State- (IS)-inspired militants.

“The subject is a notorious member of the Abu Sayyaf and is a trained bomber by an Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) bomb expert,” the military said in a statement. Bomb-making materials were recovered when he was captured.

Additionally, troops recovered about 11 kilograms (five pounds) of packed methamphetamine hydrochloride (locally known as “ice” or “shabu”) allegedly left behind by gunmen, in what the army says was a proof that the militants were engaged in drug dealing.

Blamed for Bali bombing

JI was al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian front and was blamed for a 2002 bomb attack in the Indonesian resort island of Bali that left more than 200 dead, many of them western tourists.

Since then, JI has largely disbanded, but many members were believed to have penetrated regional militant groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, a small terror group in the southern Philippines that specializes in beheading hostages, bombings and attacks.

One of its leaders, Hapilon, along with the previously unknown Maute group, took over large parts of Marawi on May 23, triggering intense clashes that have killed 62 security forces and 257 militants. Twenty-six civilians have been killed, while 24 other people have died from diseases in overcrowded evacuation centers, officials said.

Military official said Hapilon is holed up in Marawi with his men, backed by foreign fighters.

“The capture of Marani will, somehow, cripple any possible support being given by Marani to Hapilon as he struggled to leave Marawi for safety,” said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Western Mindanao Command.

On Friday, government troops rescued one of six Vietnamese sailors held captive by the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Basilan, an island southwest of Marawi.

Hoang Vo, 26, and five other Vietnamese sailors were seized aboard their boat off the island of Basilan in November.

Vo apparently escaped from his captors while government forces were pounding a suspected Abu Sayyaf camp with airstrikes and artillery. Military officials said they could not immediately ascertain the situation of the other Vietnamese sailors.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be holding 26 captives, 21 of whom are said to be in the neighboring island province of Sulu and five are in Basilan. The group beheaded a 70-year-old German captive in February and two Canadians last year, after their governments refused to pay ransom.

Since January, the military said it has killed 83 Abu Sayyaf militants in offensives meant to crush the group’s southern strongholds.

Bounty

Hapilon, who has a $5 million bounty on his head offered by the U.S. government, was believed wounded in the military offensives in Basilan in January. How he managed to travel undetected and reach Marawi has not been explained.

Police and troops monitored Hapilon’s presence in Marawi on May 23 and moved to arrest him. But his group was backed up by fighters from the Maute gang and several militants from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, among others.

The violence so far has emptied Marawi, a city of 200,000 on Mindanao island, and forced President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the entire southern region.

On Saturday, Duterte said that troops were surprised by the fire-power the militants had in Marawi, but vowed to crush the enemy forces with government’s continued bombardments.

“All they know is to kill and destroy. Period. And to kill all who do not believe in Allah,” Duterte said in a speech during a visit to Agusan del Norte province, also in Mindanao. “Just look at Marawi now. What’s going to happen with that?”

Duterte claimed the dead in Marawi “has reached 500,” a figure greater than the official toll. He did not explain where he got information, but the president has been known to give out statements that are later walked back by his spokesmen.

“Their bodies are rotting. They dared to fight the government equipped with airplanes and cannons. We expected that,” he said in his first public appearance in days.

“Plenty of my soldiers and police have died. We cannot reach a settlement there in Marawi. Let’s finish this war first and then we’ll see who’ll win. And then we’ll talk,” the president said.

Duterte said militants have suffered “twice as many” casualties, with their dead “sprinkled all over Marawi now.”

“Nobody’s going to claim them because they don’t know them. Those are the ones who came here,” he said, alluding to foreign fighters.

Duterte admitted troops were taken aback by the resistance in Marawi, with many well-equipped enemy fighters positioning themselves in buildings and other strategic points where they managed to pin down approaching troops.

“They got the vantage positions first. But I never, never, never really thought they were able to bring that many bullets into Marawi,” Duterte said.

Asked on Monday when the military expected to finish the operation, armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the brass does not “set timelines anymore because of the complexity of the urban environment.”

He said the recovery and control of strategic vantage points by advancing troops have continued, with the enemy resistance continuing to wane.

“Troops continue to get deeper into once enemy-held positions as evidenced by the recovery of cadavers of terrorists and their firearms, computers and peripherals, as well as communications equipment and accessories,” he said, adding gunmen have been confined to just four of the 96 villages in Marawi.

Padilla said the use of civilians as “human shields” and the fighters running for cover inside mosques have slowed the military’s advance. Also, three Maute members who tried to escape were caught aboard a passenger ship bound for the central island of Iloilo.

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Government troops patrol an area in Marawi City where security forces are engaged in protracted fighting with Islamic State-linked militants, June 17, 2017. (Felipe Villamor/BenarNews)

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