MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, IS, ISIL, or Da’esch, carried out its first major attack in the Philippines over the weekend in a 10-hour gun battle with the military in Basilan that killed at least 19 soldiers and 13 terrorists.
This was disclosed to Rappler by Rohan Gunaratna, the head of Singapore’s International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research. “The group responsible is the Islamic State, led by Isnilon Hapilon in the Philippines,” Gunaratna told Rappler in a phone interview on Sunday, April 11. Gunaratna is the author of numerous books on security, including Inside Al-Qaeda.
“He’s the current leader of the Islamic State in the southern Philippines, and he has taken responsibility for this operation," said Gunaratna."So it’s wrong for anyone to say that this is a fight with the Abu Sayyaf because in Basilan, Isnilon Hapilon and all the other commanders have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi (who leads ISIS). They are no longer loyal to Radullan Sahiron, the Abu Sayyaf leader.”
The military said the terrorists' attack in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, last Saturday, April 9 wounded at least 52 soldiers and 20 terrorists, including Abu Sayyaf leader Radzmil Janatul, aka Kubayb, and notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnapper Furuji Indama.
Of the 19 soldiers killed, 18 of them died during the clash while one died hours after being brought to the hospital. Four of the soldiers were beheaded in the fighting, regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said.
The military said 13 of the terrorists were also killed in the clash.
Intelligence sources however told Rappler that a total of 34 people died in the clash.
Among the terrorists' casualties was a Moroccan national, identified as Mohammad Khattab, as well as Amah Hapilon, the son of Hapilon.
Armed Forces chief of staff General Hernando Irriberri said Khattab "wanted to unify, organize all kidnap-for-ransom groups to be affiliated with an international terrorist organization." He did not identify the group.
Allegiance to ISIS
Hapilon carries a reward of up to $5 million from the US Rewards for Justice Program. He was indicted in the District of Columbia for “terrorist acts against United States nationals and other foreign nationals.”
The FBI said he was “the deputy or second in command for the foreign terrorist organization, the Abu Sayyaf.” Back then, he reported to Radullan Sahiron, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf. (Read: ISIS’ global ambitions and plans for Southeast Asia)
On January 4, 2016, Hapilon took his commitment to ISIS a step further, uniting Filipinos and Malaysians in 4 “battalions” in the Philippines. They formed a shura or leadership council and named Hapilon their leader. (Read: ISIS to declare a province in Mindanao?)
Early this year, Gunaratna warned that “the next step ISIS is likely to take is the proclamation of wilayat – or province – in Mindanao.” Now he is more insistent, saying this ISIS attack – the largest in Southeast Asia – is a sign of capability, and that Hapilon’s group “will soon be recognized and declared a wilayat.”
In February, ISIS recognized Hapilon’s coalition but did not declare its area of influence a province. (Read: ISIS recognizes Philippine-based extremist groups)
Two weeks later on March 1, soldiers captured 3 major strongholds of one of the groups which pledged allegiance to ISIS in Butig town in Lanao del Sur after a 10-day offensive that killed 24 militants, 3 soldiers and displaced more than 30,000 people. (Read: PH troops regain control of town attacked by terrorists)
A day later, a lone assailant tried to assassinate an influential Saudi preacher on an ISIS hit-list. Dabiq, its monthly online magazine, called on “lone wolves” to attack several Saudi clerics accused of apostasy, including the Saudi preacher who had just finished his speech at Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City.
Saudi Sheikh Aaidh al-Qarni and Saudi diplomat Sheikh Turki Assaegh were wounded but survived the attempt. The gunman was killed by police forces. (Read: PH probes attack on ISIS-targeted top Saudi cleric)
At least 18 foreign hostages are held in the Philippines, most or all of them thought to be with the Abu Sayyaf.
Military in denial?
Sources in the military said Isnilon is categorized as an Abu Sayyaf leader and "an ISIS sympathizer," which may show a military in denial. (Read: Experts warn PH: Don’t underestimate ISIS)
Major Tan told reporters the ambush that led to the large military casualty was led by Hapilon and about 120 members of the Abu Sayyaf.
Gunaratna told Rappler that is wrong.
“It is because the Philippine military still sees them as Abu Sayyaf, but in reality, Isnilon Hapilon has moved away and is now an independent entity,” said Gunaratna. “He is committed towards following the Islamic State. He’s going to start the beheadings, and he’s going to enforce the Islamic State code in Basilan and in other areas that they control.”
Gunaratna urged “uncompromising military action to preempt the declaration” of an Islamic State province. – Rappler.com
Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.