MANILA – The deaths of local terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute will seriously set back efforts to project the Islamic State as succeeding in efforts to expand in Southeast Asia – especially in the Philippines – after being driven out of strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the military chief said Monday.
Asked how the death of Hapilon – tagged by ISIS as the emir for Southeast Asia, and who is believed to have combined his Abu Sayyaf unit with the Maute Group in a bid to gain full recognition of ISIS – will impact the expansion of other ISIS-inspired groups in other places besides Marawi, Armed Forces chief Eduardo Año said in a press briefing it will blunt such efforts to project a strong, growing presence.
Earlier, the military had said that certain Malaysian and Indonesian fighters had joined the Filipino terror groups on the ground in Marawi.
With Hapilon and Maute dead, the equation may change, said the AFP. “If they cannot find another leader immediately, including the infrastructure. . . what will happen, since they are leaderless, a lot of followers will abandon the movement,” said Año at a press briefing hours after the defense secretary confirmed that government troops had killed the top leaders of the terror alliance that laid siege to Marawi City on May 23.
Later in the briefing, Año was joined by Seretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was also asked about the impact of the military’s victory in Marawi on the international community.
The deaths of the two terrorist leaders, said Lorenzana, are significant in that “they are the uniting factor there, that’s why they [terrorists] were still fighting. So malaking bagay sa atin ‘yan [So that’s a big thing for us].”
He said the blow on the international terror network is big “especially [in the case of] Isnilon, who is actually designated (ISIS) emir of Southeast Asia.”
Crisis over before ASEAN summit
Lorenzana also expressed confidence the siege will be over before the Philippines hosts in mid-November the culminating activities of the ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, especially the Leaders’ Summit that will see heads of state of 10 bloc members, as well as dialogue partners like the United States, in attendance.
“It’s already terminated here. The next program will be to clear the area of explosives; next, the assesssment of the damage and rehabilitation. So it will come before the Asean summit.”
We are sure we can end the Marawi crisis before the ASEAN summit in November,” said the DND chief.
The local government said earlier 395,000 people in all were dislocated by the siege that saw much of the Islamic city damaged by air strikes, relentless ground fighting and artillery attacks, and which killed 47 civilians and 162 government troops. In all, the military said 822 terrorists were killed.
Año said Hapilon was “shot in the chest, Omar killed by a head shot.” He said the bodies of the two men are now at the command post Task force Trident.
They “will be buried according to Muslim rites. But their burial locations will not be disclosed to prevent marking the area as a symbol of matyrdom among Islamic State followers.”
The AFP chief stressed, “We will give them a decent burial.”
Meanwhile, government troops are focusing on rescuing remaining hostages and clearing structures of improvised explosive devices and booby traps “so Marawi residents get home safe,” said Año.
On Monday morning, the government said troops had rescued an additional 17 civilian hostages, including a 2-month-old infant born in captivity.