Philippine officials on Friday said they were verifying intelligence information indicating that a Malaysian militant who is believed to have bankrolled the Marawi siege may have been killed in the fighting.
There was also indication that one of the two Maute brothers who were identified as among those who planned the siege with the Abu Sayyaf militant group was slain, military officials said.
“Malaysian terrorist Mahmud Ahmad has been possibly killed in Marawi,” said Brig. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, commander of military forces in eastern Mindanao, the southern Philippine island where Marawi is located.
Mahmud is alleged to have funded the Marawi attacks and was seen in a video recovered by the army last month where he plotted with Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the self-described local Islamic State (IS) leader.
Also seen in the video clip was Omarkhayam Maute, who with his brother, Abdullah, backed up Hapilon. The military earlier put up bounties of 5 million pesos (U.S. $101,250) for each of the Maute brothers, and twice that for Hapilon.
In addition, the United States has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted foreign terrorists.
Also on Friday, Australia said the Philippines accepted its offer to send two AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft to assist the Filipino soldiers in the battles in Marawi.
“The regional threat from terrorism, in particular from Daesh and foreign fighters, is a direct threat to Australia and our interests,” said Australian Defense Minister Marisa Payne, referring to IS by its Arab name. “Australia will continue to work with our partners in Southeast Asia to counter it.”
American forces also are assisting Filipino forces in intelligence gathering in Marawi, but they are barred from actual combat.
Military intelligence information said Omarkhayam Maute was slain in the gun battles in Marawi, which has been emptied of its 200,000 inhabitants as government forces continued to drop bombs in a small area where the militants are believed to be holding out.
Gapay said Mahmud was believed wounded in the fighting and later died. But troops have yet to recover his body, as well as that of Omarkhayam. Their deaths, if true, would be a significant blow to the gunmen who are believed to have rallied other IS militants – including from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Middle East – to Marawi.
Gapay said Mahmud was among about 40 foreign terrorists monitored to have entered the Philippine through its “porous borders” in the south.
Some of these foreign fighters had been neutralized in Marawi, according to military reports.
“We assess that most of these foreign terrorists have slipped inside the country through the backdoor,” Gapay said. “Based on the latest intelligence report, there are some 40 foreign terrorists in the country now.”
Intelligence officials said Mahmud was a former university professor who trained in Afghanistan. He was a former teacher of Islamic studies in Malaysia, who also studied in Pakistan where he got inducted into the militancy espoused by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
He is believed to have wired money to Hapilon and the Maute brothers, whose family is relatively rich by Marawi standards, army intelligence officials said.
Contacted in Kuala Lumpur about the Philippine military's claim on Mahmud's death, Malaysian Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told BenarNews, “So far, it has not been confirmed. We are in the midst of verification.”
“Not yet able to confirm,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Royal Malaysia Police counter-terrorist special branch, separately told BenarNews.
Concrete blocks and debris splatter from buildings targeted by Philippine troops in a section of southern Marawi city, where security forces are engaged in firefights with Islamic State-inspired militants, June 23, 2017. Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, the spokesman of the military campaign on the ground, said they had received intelligence reports that Omarkhayam, had been killed. This however could also not be independently confirmed because troops had yet to advance in the four Marawi villages controlled by the gunmen.
“Our report is that he was killed in one of the four conflict areas that we have been talking about,” Herrera said, “We can’t say what day he was killed, what firearm had killed him or where his cadaver was buried.”
However, he said, there was “strong indication” pointing to Omarkhayam’s death.
Marawi has since been vacated, with the death toll exceeding 300 people, including 26 civilians and 69 soldiers and policemen.
On Thursday, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to coordinate in combating terrorism. There had been fears that IS was moving to establish a regional base in Marawi, and officials and security analysts said there was a need for a more concerted effort to combat the rise of the militants.
“The focus of the military operations remains,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said, adding that the terrorists “continue to pose pockets of resistance to the advancing troops.”
He said the gunmen were also increasingly getting desperate, torching houses and establishments in areas of the besieged city.