COTABATO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – Eight members of a criminal group – including an alleged Indonesian bomb maker – were killed in a clash with government troops in Palimbang town in Sultan Kudarat on Thursday, November 26.
Colonel Emmanuel Salamat, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Brigade, said the clash started around 5:30 am and lasted until 9:30 am in Sitio Sinapingan, Barangay Butril in Palimbang town on Thursday.
Salamat said a combined military and police team was about to serve a warrant of arrest for the group’s leader, Mohamad Jaafar Sabiwang Maguid, popularly known as “Kumander Tokboy” and “Abu Gaib,” when it was fired upon by the criminal group.
Maguid escaped but 8 of his men were killed. Sources said that based on intelligence information, the casualties included Indonesian bomb maker Ibrahim Ali, Alyas Sucipto, also known as Ustadz Abu Fatah.
Regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said the military was verifying intelligence reports that one those killed was an Indonesian national.
Maguid, who is being pursued by troops, is facing criminal charges for extortion, arson, frustrated murder, cattle rustling, and armed robbery.
Salamat said that authorities obtained high powered firearms at the camp, including a homemade Barrett sniper riffle, M-16 armalite, and .45 pistol.
“Assorted documents with high intelligence value were also recovered in their camp,” he added.
The operation was coordinated through the Adhoc Joint-Action Group (AHJAG), a joint effort of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that seeks to interdict and isolate lawless elements that take refuge in or near MILF communities.
Authorities suspect that the criminal group is a sympathizer of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, IS, ISIL, based on the signature black flag hoisted on a bamboo pole on a big tree covering the group’s hideout. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: ISIS in Southeast Asia)
The bandits were from Ansar al-Khalifa, a small group that declared its support for ISIS in a video circulated on the Internet last year, Tan said.
Tan told Agence France-Presse that 5 black flags similar to those used by ISIS fighters were recovered from the bandits after the clash.
The military has said that support for ISIS – which controls vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq – in the Philippines was limited to local bandits claiming allegiance to the group.
But it has said there is no evidence showing that such gangs were receiving support from the jihadists.
The larger Abu Sayyaf group, a United States-listed terrorist organization that is holding at least four foreign nationals hostage and has demanded millions of dollars in ransom, has likewise pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Criminal gangs operate kidnap for ransom and extortion activities alongside Muslim and communist separatist campaigns in the restive south.
While the relatively new, Ansar al-Khalifa had no proven links to ISIS, national military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla said.
"This group is trying to ride on the popularity of the ISIS, but they're not really ISIS," he told AFP. "We view them as mere criminal gangs." – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com