Security forces killed a suspect believed to be a brother of the new Islamic State leader in the Philippines, when government troops overran a hideout of the Abu Sayyaf militant group in southern Sulu province, the military said Wednesday.
Two government soldiers were also wounded during a 20-minute firefight as troops from the army’s 41st Infantry Battalion clashed with a 40-member strong Abu Sayyaf force in the jungles of Langhub village in Patikul town shortly before noon on Tuesday, the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) said in a statement.
Soldiers recovered the body of a suspected militant and an AK-47 assault rifle from the site of the encounter, the statement said.
“Soldiers identified the neutralized terrorist as Nanz Sawadjaan, the younger brother of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan,” it said.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the WestMinCom chief, told reporters that troops could not confirm if there were any foreign militants among the Abu Sayyaf force. Dozens of foreign militants are believed to be in the southern Philippines, according to security analysts.
“Our troops remain persistent in tracking down and neutralizing the remaining terrorists in Sulu,” Sobejana said.
Several attacks have been attributed to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, including a twin suicide bombing that killed 23 other people and wounded about 100 others at a church in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, on Jan. 27.
Officials said Hatib facilitated the infiltration into the southern Philippines of an Indonesian couple who carried out the attack.
In July, Indonesian National Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo identified the suicide bombers as Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, a married couple who were deported from Turkey in 2017 after they allegedly tried to cross its border to enter Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria.
Hatib also masterminded a suspected suicide bombing in July last year on nearby Basilan Island, authorities said.
Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan replaced Isnilon Hapilon as the head of Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, after Hapilon was killed two years ago near the end of a five-month militant siege of the southern city of Marawi.
Hapilon, joined by other militants including the Maute brothers, planned and carried out the May 2017 takeover by local extremists who were backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters.
On Tuesday, the United States declared Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and placed him under U.S. sanctions.
According to the State Department, the designation given to Sawadjaan and the 11 other militants linked to international terrorist organizations aims to “deny these terrorists the resources to plan and carry out attacks.”
Properties and interests in properties that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. citizens are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with designated global terrorists, the department said.
As recently as July, officials reported that little was known about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, except that he was a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which in the early 2000s was known to have joined in planning and carrying out of kidnap-for-ransom raids.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.