The last two surviving leaders of the prolonged siege in the southern Philippines, including a principal terror suspect, were reportedly killed in an assault by thousands of troops trying to retake the last area of Marawi held by extremists linked to Islamic State.
Isnilon Hapilon, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list, and Omarkhayam Maute were killed in a firefight and their bodies were found on Monday, according to the military.
Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander, emerged as the self-appointed pioneer of so-called Islamic State in Asean last year when a video appeared showing militants from the group urging extremists to unite under his leadership.
Philippine Defence Secretary Lorenzana confirmed the deaths, saying that DNA tests would be conducted on the remains of the two militants to allow Philippine and US bounties to be claimed for their deaths.
Hapilon was seen as key to Isis efforts to establish a base in the region as the jihadist group is forced out of Iraq and Syria.
Malaysian Mahmud bin Ahmad, also known as Abu Handzalah, had not been found, he said.
Mahmud was reported to have been a university lecturer in Malaysia who was in charge of raising finances from abroad for extremist courses and recruitment.
The US State Department offered US$5 million for Hapilon after he was blamed for the kidnappings of several Americans, one of whom was beheaded in 2001 in Basilan province.
His death is “a significant operational and symbolic blow to Isis-linked groups in Mindanao and to Isis Central in Syria as well”, said Kumar Ramakrishna, a terror specialist at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
But he said the group’s influence would persist in the southern Philippines or elsewhere in Asean.
“Just because the Marawi siege is coming to an end does not mean the threat is over. Isis-linked militants there will regroup… and lay low for a while, while rebuilding their strength,” Ramakrishna said.
The siege of Marawi on the large island of Mindanao began on May 23, leading to more than 1,000 deaths, including an estimated 800 militants. Colonel Romeo Brawner said on Sunday that about 40 militants were still fighting on a hill by Lake Lanao, including 100 non-combatants and civilian hostages.
Among the defenders were about 10 foreigners, mostly Malaysians and Indonesians, the military said.
Hundreds of Asean militants are believed to have flocked to Iraq and Syria to fight with Islamic State, particularly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Confiscated weapons from Marawi in June. Picture credit: Wikimedia