Govt caught by sur­prise af­ter many gun­men emerged to de­fend IS leader

New Straits Times - - News -


IT was meant to be a “sur­gi­cal op­er­a­tion” to cap­ture one of the world’s most wanted ter­ror­ists, who was hid­ing and wounded in a south­ern Philip­pine city. But it went spec­tac­u­larly wrong.

Three days later, Marawi — the cen­tre of Is­lam in the mainly Catholic Asian na­tion — was swarmed by tanks, at­tack he­li­copters and thou­sands of troops fight­ing Is­lamic State-linked fight­ers holed up in homes and build­ings.

Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte had also de­clared mar­tial law across the south­ern third of the coun­try to quell the cri­sis, while many of the 200,000 res­i­dents had fled, and se­cu­rity forces had lost their tar­get: Is­nilon Hapi­lon.

Forces had ini­tially been con­fi­dent they would cap­ture or kill the elu­sive Hapi­lon, re­garded by the United States as one of the world's most dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ists. The US gov­ern­ment of­fers a US$5 mil­lion (RM22 mil­lion) bounty for his cap­ture.

The mil­i­tary had, for months, been con­duct­ing of­fen­sives against mil­i­tants in nearby moun­tains, and came close to killing Hapi­lon dur­ing a bomb­ing raid in Jan­uary.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing in­tel­li­gence that he had come here for med­i­cal treat­ment and was hid­ing in a house, a small group of se­cu­rity forces con­ducted what two mil­i­tary spokes­men de­scribed as a “sur­gi­cal op­er­a­tion” to get him.

But, even though the re­gion is a known hot­bed of mil­i­tants, the troops were taken by sur­prise when dozens of gun­men emerged to de­fend Hapi­lon, then go on a deadly ram­page through­out the city.

“We had been pum­melling them in the moun­tains, but were caught un­aware when they en­tered Marawi,” De­fence Sec­re­tary Delfin Loren­zana con­ceded in a brief­ing on Wed­nes­day.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem was the sup­port for the gun­men from lo­cals, con­nected by clan ties.

“The prob­lem here is they have a lot of rel­a­tives in­side Marawi city,” Loren­zana said.

If Hapi­lon did es­cape, it would be a huge blow for the au­thor­i­ties in their ef­forts to stamp out what Duterte had said as a fast-ris­ing threat from IS.

The gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity an­a­lysts con­sid­ered him the linch­pin of an ef­fort to unite var­i­ous small Mus­lim armed groups in the coun­try’s law­less south and neigh­bour­ing coun­tries un­der the black IS flag.

Hapi­lon, 51, ini­tially gained no­to­ri­ety as leader of the Abu Sayyaf.

In 2001, he helped lead the ab­duc­tion from a western Philip­pine re­sort is­land of a group of lo­cal and for­eign tourists.

Two Amer­i­can hostages even­tu­ally died, one of whom was be­headed.

In mid-2014, Hapi­lon, an en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ate from the Uni­ver­sity of the Philip­pines, showed up in a YouTube video as one of the first mil­i­tant lead­ers in the Philip­pines to pledge al­le­giance to IS.

In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Anal­y­sis of Con­flict direc­tor Sid­ney Jones, an ex­pert on Asian ji­hadist move­ments, said Hapi­lon was en­dorsed by the IS as its “amir”, or top leader for South­east Asia.

Loren­zana said IS lead­ers in the Mid­dle East had or­dered Hapi­lon to move off his tiny is­land base of Basi­lan, and into more pop­u­lated ar­eas of the south­ern Philip­pines near Marawi “to in­crease the mass base” of IS.

Hapi­lon’s es­cape on Tues­day has had broader im­pli­ca­tions than IS’s prospects in the Philip­pines, with Duterte cit­ing the en­su­ing vi­o­lence as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to de­clare mar­tial law over Min­danao and threaten mil­i­tary rule for the rest of the coun­try. AFP


Philip­pine sol­diers pa­trolling the streets of Marawi yes­ter­day. (In­set) A Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion poster show­ing the de­tails of Is­nilon Hapi­lon.

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