Updated at 1:32 p.m. ET on 2017-10-19
A Malaysian militant considered the top Islamic State recruiter in Southeast Asia and financier of the Marawi siege has been killed in the southern Philippine city, President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday.
Hours earlier, military officials said Mahmud Ahmad was likely among 20 militants killed in overnight fighting, basing the claim on “credible” testimony from a hostage rescued from Marawi but cautioning that it had not yet been confirmed.
"Now, the other – that one that they call Doc. There are three of them – Hapilon, Omar and Doc … He was taken this afternoon, and that completes the story,” Duterte said in a speech before the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Manila. Mahmud was nicknamed “Doc” because of his doctorate from the University of Malaya.
Duterte’s remarks came three days after soldiers killed Isnilon Hapilon, chief of the Abu Sayyaf group and overall IS head in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, leader of the Maute gang that joined Hapilon’s forces in the May 23 takeover of the city.
Malaysian Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun told BenarNews late Thursday his office had received information about Mahmud’s killing.
"But we have no confirmation and we are waiting for that from the Philippines authorities,” he said.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in fighting since militants linked to the Islamic State seized territory in Marawi, officials said. The fatalities include 824 militants, 162 soldiers and at least 47 civilians, the military said. More than 1,000 soldiers also were wounded in house-to-house combat, according to hospital officials.
Mahmud took leadership of the dwindling militant force after the deaths on Monday of Hapilon and Maute, military officials said.
They said Mahmud was among those who planned the siege along with Hapilon, a terrorist on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Armed forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año said a freed hostage revealed that Mahmud had died in one of the latest clashes that also wounded six soldiers. Two hostages – a mother and her daughter, who suffered injuries – were rescued Thursday, he said.
“We will look for the cadaver,” he said, adding that the process to confirm the report “with finality, however, is still ongoing.”
“Our operations to flush out and deal with terrorist stragglers have been continuing relentlessly since yesterday,” he said. “One of the hostages revealed that Mahmud was dead and buried last night.”
Año said troops were still attempting to recover the remaining hostages, believed to number about 20.
In a video released by the army in June, Mahmud and others were seen plotting the attack. Intelligence officials had said he funneled about 30 million pesos (about U.S. $600,000) to Hapilon’s group, enabling them to purchase weapons and food that allowed them to dig in.
The militants seized hostages when they launched their attack on the predominantly Muslim city of more than 200,000 people, burning businesses and homes.
Mahmud, believed to be in his late 30s to early 40s, trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s while studying at Islamabad Islamic University in Pakistan. He is a former lecturer of Islamic studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, one of Malaysia’s top universities.
The head of the local army task force, Col. Romeo Brawner, said earlier Thursday that many of the gunmen were killed by government sniper fire, but retrieving bodies and properly identifying them had proven difficult.
He said Mahmud was the last “high-value target” to fall.
“Mahmud was among those killed based on the revelation of the hostages,” Brawner said, adding the hostages claimed with certainty that Mahmud was among those holding them.
Asked whether his remains had been recovered, Brawner said: “Not yet. That’s why we could not say definitely that Mahmud was one of them.”
But while the military said they could not confirm with certainty Mahmud’s death, the statements from one of the rescued witnesses were “credible.”
“There is still resistance. The fighting is continuing,” Brawner said, adding that the militants had “organized their resistance.”
“They have established their defensive positions,” he said.
Hareez Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.