MANILA, Philippines - Classified documents and maps obtained by Rappler show the terrorist targets of the first smart bomb attack in the Philippines early this year are still alive and have now found sanctuary in central Mindanao, in a territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
This poses a new challenge to the peace process between the government and the MILF. Both sides resumed their talks Tuesday, July 17.
The two most senior Jemaah Islamiyah or JI leaders in the Philippines are Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, who carries a US$5-M reward on his head, and Singaporean Mohammad Abdullah Ali, known as Muawiyah, who has a $500,000 reward for his capture or kill.
Civilian and military intelligence sources from the Phiippines, Malaysia and the United States confirmed to Rappler that the two escaped the joint Phiippine-US smart bomb operation on Feb 2, 2012, which killed their long-time host, Abu Sayyaf leader Umbra Jumdail Gumbahali, better known as Doc Abu.
They are now in Butig, Lanao del Sur, near the MILF's Camp Bushra, seen clearly in satellite maps obtained by Rappler and verified by Philippine and US intelligence sources.
Despite this, the Philippine military continues to insist that the two were killed in the February attack.
When asked by Rappler about the alleged presence of the two JI leaders in MILF territory, Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF panel holding peace talks with the government, said: "The MILF also received that report... but our AHJAG is validating this on the ground."
From Sulu to Lanao
According to classified Philippine intelligence reports, Marwan and Muawiyah were sheltered in Sulu for nearly two weeks by an Abu Sayyaf member belonging to the group of Radullan Sahiron, the most senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf today. Sahiron allegedly blamed the two for the death of Doc Abu, Sahiron’s close friend. Their two groups often worked together against the military and in kidnap-for-ransom cases.
“These two men were not in the kill zone,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore. “In the battlefield, such confusions can always take place, but today, the Philippine military is much more capable than what it was. It’s only a question of time that Muawiyah and Marwan will be either captured or killed.”
The documents say Marwan and Muawiyah fled Patikul, Sulu, as early as February 27 after Sahiron and his cousin, MNLF commander Tahil Sali, pushed them out of the area. They were allegedly picked up by another Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, and travelled by boat to an area in Butig, Lanao del Sur, near the MILF’s Camp Bushra.
Intelligence sources in Singapore and the Philippines told Rappler Muawiyah has called family members in Singapore since then.
Marwan comes from a family of jihadists: one brother was arrested in Indonesia for a failed bomb plot; the other brother was arrested in the United States. Marwan is also wanted in Malaysia for the killing of a Christian member of Parliament in 2000, the only successful al-Qaeda linked attack in Malaysia. Marwan is also a leader of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia or KMM, which carried out those attacks.
Filipino intelligence sources also told Rappler that the two men are travelling with pregnant Filipino women, believed to be their wives.
MILF and peace talks
Their area of refuge now becomes tricky because the MILF is in the middle of peace talks with the Philippine government. Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the two sides will reach an agreement this year.
“In 2006, the MILF committed actually to assist government and interdict lawless elements, and this is via an Ad Hoc Action Group (AHJAG),” said Leonen in a recent interview on #TalkThursday. “The government has turned over to the MILF a list of its high-value targets (HVTs), and we hope that the MILF soon enough will keep to their commitments in 2006.”
Both Leonen and Iqbal pointed out that AHJAG has helped resolve incidents of kidnapping, without ransom paid, and is part of the reason open conflict has been minimized this year.
The difficulty is that the MILF also gave JI sanctuary from the mid-90's until 2005, when the MILF Central Command threw them out, along with the Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Solaiman Movement. That was when JI members fled to Sulu.
“It’s a reality that many of those that are lawless do have relatives within communities where MILF may be influential or dominant, and therefore, it may be natural that in some instances, they would come home and seek succor under their protection,” added Leonen.
Marwan and Muawiyah pose a new challenge to the peace process. "They are the two most important foreign terrorists currently operating in Southeast Asia," said Gunaratna. "They are the two most important foreign international terrorists operating in the Philippines." - 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.