MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two militants, one Filipino and the other Malaysian, who survived the crushing of a siege of a southern Philippine city last year are among the leading candidates to succeed a slain Islamic State group regional leader as the rebels attempt to recover from setbacks, a top security official said Tuesday.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Filipino Humam Abdul Najid and Malaysian Amin Baco are among several Muslim militant commanders in the south who could succeed Isnilon Hapilon, who led the devastating siege of Marawi city.
Troops killed Hapilon in a final battle in which they ended the five-month siege.
The military declared that Baco was killed, but Esperon said his body has not been found and reports indicate he is still alive and hiding somewhere in the south.
“He was not accounted for in Marawi but he was reported somewhere else,” Esperon said of Baco, who some believe was wounded at the height of the Marawi fighting but managed to flee to southern Sulu province, where he recovered and is in hiding in the jungle with Abu Sayyaf extremist gunmen.
Najid, who is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Dar, is among those who plotted the Marawi attack but escaped from the Islamic city, bringing with him money that the militants looted from houses and business establishments in communities they occupied for months, Esperon said.
“He was able to get out of Marawi and bring out some funds which we believe he can now use to recruit or to fund some operations so we’re looking at him closely,” said Esperon, a former military chief of staff who oversaw major battles against the militants.
Another possible person who could lead the Islamic State group branch in the region is Abu Sayyaf commander Yassir Igasan, a Libya-educated militant who has connections to Middle Eastern armed groups, Esperon said.
At the height of the Marawi fighting, about 40 foreign militants traveled to the southern Philippines to join hundreds of Filipino militants in the lakeside city. Fourteen of the foreigners are known to have been killed by troops. It’s unclear what happened to the others, Esperon said.
More than 1,100 people, mostly militants, were killed in the Marawi siege, which also forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee to nearby towns. The United States and Australia deployed surveillance aircraft and drones to help Filipino troops battle the militants, who turned buildings and houses into combat and sniper posts.
The violence bolstered fears that the Islamic State group was fast gaining a foothold and adherents in Southeast Asia following its major battle defeats in Syria and Iraq.
Following their defeat in Marawi, many Islamic State group militants have moved back to Syria, while others have gone to other areas including the Chechen Republic, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Southeast Asia where they continue to pose a threat, Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert, told a security conference in Manila.
Countries should establish joint databases on the militants and cooperate in training anti-terrorism personnel to cope with the continuing threat, Gunaratna said.