Eight government soldiers were injured in a gunbattle this week with an Islamic State-linked faction in the southern Philippine island province of Sulu, where officials suspect at least five foreign militants are working with the gunmen, the military said Friday.
The soldiers were patrolling in a remote village in Patikul town Wednesday when they encountered about 40 Abu Sayyaf militants under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, and the two sides clashed, officials said. He is believed to be the new leader of Islamic State’s (IS) branch in the country’s south.
“The firefight lasted for less than an hour before the militants withdrew, bringing along their casualties with them,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the military’s regional commander, said in a report released Friday.
“Rest assured that we will further intensify our operations to neutralize the remaining bandits in Sulu and in all the provinces under the operational control of the command,” he said.
American and Filipino intelligence officials consider Sawadjaan the new IS chief in the southern Philippines. He succeeded Isnilon Hapilon, another Abu Sayyaf commander, who was killed in October 2017 at the end of a five-month militant siege of Marawi, a city in the region.
Sawadjaan is believed to have masterminded three recent deadly bombings on Jolo, one of the islands in Sulu, including a suicide bomb attack by an Indonesian militant couple that killed 23 people at a church in late January.
The most recent attack occurred after soldiers killed three suspected suicide bombers on Nov. 5 on Jolo island. Troops remain on a heightened state of alert to thwart any bombing attempts by active Abu Sayyaf militants.
On Thursday, Armed Forces chief Gen. Noel Clement said at least five other foreign militants were believed to be hiding with the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo.
The military was coordinating with Indonesian and Malaysian authorities to monitor attempts by foreigners who had fought for IS in the Middle East to infiltrate the southern Philippines, Clement said.
“If ever there are reports, let’s say from Malaysia or Indonesia, they will share the information [with us], so we can prevent the terrorists from crossing, and the same is true also if there are reports of fighters here going to their respective country,” Clement said.
Meanwhile in Washington on the same day, members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS issued a statement praising recent successes in defeating the militant group in Syria and Iraq, including the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a raid by U.S. Special Forces at his Syrian hideout last month.
But the coalition also warned in a joint communique that “despite Daesh/ISIS’s territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria, none of its branches has renounced its allegiance to Daesh/ISIS. These branches have served as trans-regional enablers, providing support to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, produce media, and plan external operations.”
“The global coalition must also remain vigilant and work against the threat of Daesh/ISIS branches and networks around the world, upon the request or prior consent of the country or state in which [a] Daesh/ISIS branch or network exists, and while fully respecting international law,” said the communique issued by the U.S. State Department on Thursday, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic name and a different acronym.
On Friday, the State Department announced that Nathan Sales, its counterterrorism ambassador, would travel to the Philippines next week after visiting Belgium and The Hague.
While in the Philippines, he is scheduled to meet with national security and counterterrorism officials to discuss information sharing and efforts to combat the financing of terrorism in the region, according to a news release from the department.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, and Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, contributed to this report.