This story series was supported by the Pulitzer Center
From the battlefield, the Marawi siege and the establishment of the Philippines as the eastern province of ISIS was led by men who headed militant troops. But war requires money, weapons, trained soldiers – and as a Rappler research found out – women who established the ties of the key terrorist groups in the Philippines.
Today, the emerging face of the radicalized extremist is female. From hanging back in the shadows, women are moving up to take a more active role in terror networks, alongside their male counterparts. Their once low-key roles of sheltering fugitives, marrying jihadists and giving birth to future mujahideen, serving as couriers or errand girls, or being forced into sexual slavery, allowed women to largely evade military surveillance, bypass security checks, and be overlooked in counter-terrorism efforts.
In this two-part series, Rappler reveals how jihadist wives used their perceived innocence as a veil of stealth tactics to collect, move, and transfer large sums of money to jihadi networks to buy weapons, fund training camps, and later, bankroll the 2017 Marawi siege. They mostly used a mix of cash remittance services or the hawala system – similar to the padala system of sending money through trusted friends and relatives.
In putting together this report, Rappler referenced several think tank reports, court records, open source documents and interviewed dozens of military officers, government intelligence sources, and terrorism experts in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
Like these women, the exchange of money was hidden in plain sight. Inevitably, authorities tracked them down following the money trail they left behind. Among them were a public school teacher and a former airline ground crew.
Myrna Mabanza, public school teacher
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – In 2016, an estimated $107,000 was transferred to members of the Islamic State (ISIS) network in the Philippines, acccording to a United Nations Security Council bulletin. The transfers were facilitated by Myrna Mabanza, a public school teacher married to Malaysian bomb maker, Mohammad Najib Hussein, also known as Abu Anas.
Abu Anas was the leader of the Ansar al-Shariah Battalion until he was killed in December 2015. Shortly after his death, a video of him beheading a Filipino civilian was released.
A United Nations Security Council bulletin detailed how Mabanza transferred money to ISIS affiliates in the Philippines and acted as a go-between linking militants from Malaysia and Indonesia to Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader and ISIS-appointed emir, Isnilon Hapilon, for combat training in the Philippines.
From January to March 2016, Mabanza acted as a conduit between Hapilon and the Syrian Arab Republic. In January 2016, Mabanza coordinated the transfer of up to $100,000 with Hapilon and upon his instruction, delivered it to members of the ISIS network in the Philippines.
In March 2016, a senior ISIS official in the Syrian Arab Republic planned to send financial support to the ISIS network in the Philippines through Mabanza.
A report by the Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based terrorism think tank says that in April 2016, Mabanza facilitated travel and accompanied a representative of the Indonesian terrorist group, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), to Basilan to meet Hapilon. The JAD representative traveled to the Philippines to purchase guns for ISIS-aligned forces and planned to smuggle them back to Indonesia.
They also wanted to arrange for bootcamp military courses for pro-ISIS recruits from Indonesia. After Isnilon agreed, the recruits from Indonesia were brought to the Philippines and were schooled in weapons-handling and bomb-making.
Who would suspect a teacher?
Mabanza’s access to terror networks and her ability to move within them was due to her profession and her own family background. As a teacher, people trusted her. “One time, she asked two friends to transfer money. They did not know that it was terrorist money,” an intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity and had followed her case, told Rappler.
Rommel Banlaoi, terrorism expert and political analyst, said this method of transferring money through friends and relatives is referred to as the “hawala system.”
“It may be small amounts of money but when collected, it becomes large. And it cannot be traced by authorities,” Banlaoi explained.
Mabanza was a licensed teacher who taught kindergarten in a public school in Zamboanga City. She was born in Zamboanga City but her other listed addresses include Basilan, and Jeddah and Daina in Saudi Arabia. It is unclear if she was working in Saudi Arabia, but being a teacher provided the perfect cover for the work she did for ISIS in the Philippines.
“Who would suspect a teacher?” the intelligence officer said.
Her friends might not have even suspected that her husband was a Malaysian jihadist. The couple has a son who must be around 4 years old by now.
Documents related to investigations done by Indonesian and Malaysian authorities obtained by Rappler show that Mabanza met Abu Anas in October 2015 on Facebook. After chatting about Islamic teachings for a while, Mabanza went to Basilan to meet him. After a series of visits, Mabanza became his second wife. Just two months after they wed, in December, Abu Anas was killed in a firefight in Basilan.
The widowed Mabanza remained in touch with Abu Sayyaf leader Hapilon through Facebook and cellphone to coordinate fund transfers. She was also assigned to look for viable targets – individuals who could pay a hefty ransom if kidnapped.
Mabanza no longer needed any indoctrination as she grew up in a family of terrorists. Her uncle, Abu Termije, was an original member of the ASG when it was founded by Abdurajak Janjalani in the 1980s. Termije is reported to have died in a military operation in 2009. Her cousins, also from Basilan, were ASG members and considered bomb experts.
The intelligence officer said that Mabanza came on their radar in the third quarter of 2015, when ISIS Philippines was being formed. Philippine intelligence kept their eye on Mabanza, relying mostly on information gathered by ground assets in Zamboanga City. The surveillance went on for more than a year, during which Mabanza was able to “transfer a lot of money.”
“That time, we didn’t have any detailed information on Myrna. We just knew that she was facilitating the entry of terrorists, meaning she would meet them at ports and bring them to Basilan,” the intelligence officer said.
Then they received word that Mabanza was supposedly part of a plan to bomb Zamboanga City.
“What we wanted to know was where they will place the bombs. Our asset said Mabanza knew that,” the intelligence officer said. He added that they were also told that Mabanza had a laptop where she kept information related to the ISIS Philippines activities.
The government intelligence officers worked with the Zamboanga regional police “to invite” the 25-year-old Mabanza for questioning in September 2016. They also searched her house. According to the Rappler source, authorities confiscated her mobile phones and laptop.
“We submitted the laptop and the contents were analyzed by other officers. What we found was a wealth of information about ISIS Philippines, and I believe some of this information is still helpful in our efforts against terrorism, not just in our country but in the region, too,” the source said.
Mabanza spent the night in a police station being interrogated by authorities. The Rappler source came face-to-face with her, too.
“Matapang siya at galit siya sa akin (She was fierce and angry at me). I knew she was a prominent member of ISIS Philippines because of her husband Abu Anas. I would mention information I knew she wouldn’t be able to deny. She knew I knew what her activities were,” the source said.
He was able to confirm during the interrogation that Mabanza facilitated receiving and disbursing the funds used by the terrorist network. In 2018, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control listed Mabanza as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for her involvement – together with Hapilon – in the transfer of an estimated $107,000 to members of ISIS’s network in the Philippines in 2016.
Following this order, the Financial Intelligence Unit of Trinidad and Tobago issued a memo freezing Mabanza’s assets.
Appeal to emotions
Mabanza was released in the afternoon the day after her arrest. Aside from having no solid case that could be filed against her, the source said colleagues also pitied Mabanza’s then infant son.
“I thought she was wily enough to bring her baby and a relative with her to the police station. While she was being interrogated, she would ask for a break so that she could check on her son who was in the other room with the relative and breastfeed him. Naawa ‘yung mga pulis sa kanya (The police pitied her),” the intelligence officer said.
An officer of the Zamboanga police headquarters confirmed with Rappler that Mabanza was released for “humanitarian reasons.”
The intelligence source said Abu Anas played smart in choosing a Filipino wife. Mabanza’s profile was a perfect fit for the needs of the terrorist cell here in the Philippines. She was educated and had a profession that people respected and would not question.
Mabanza was reportedly set to be married to another foreign terrorist after Abu Anas was killed. But her arrest changed the plan – it blew her cover and rendered Mabanza “ineffective” to the terrorist group.
“Last I heard, Myrna is in a province in Southern Philippines, teaching again,” the intelligence officer said.
Cousins: Myrna and Al Maida Marani Salvin
The death of Hapilon in the Marawi siege and Mabanza being out of commission left a void in the jihadi money transfer chain. This was taken up by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan who took over Hapilon’s role as ASG chief and Al Maida Marani Salvin, Mabanza’s cousin and the second wife of Abu Talha, one of Sawadjaan’s key advisors.
There isn’t much personal information available on Salvin, but documents related to Malaysian and Indonesian investigations reviewed by Rappler show that Salvin was part of Sawadjaan’s funding chain, receiving money transfers from abroad sent by remittance centers. Funders included 3 men who were working in oil palm fields in Sabah – Indonesian Andi Baso and his high school friend, Malaysian Mohammad Alif Bin, who went by the name “Yoga,” and a Filipino who used the name Iwan.
Funds were supposed to buy weapons for the ISIS groups in the Philippines and bankroll trips of foreign fighters. Baso, who has been tracked in the Philippines and working with Sawadjaan, said he was planning a terror attack in Sabah July or August 2019, but plans were cut short when Salvin was arrested that April in Zamboanga City for possession of explosives, bank books, and transaction slips linked to ISIS-PH funding.
Baso, 20, is the son-in-law of the Indonesian suicide bombers who bombed the Jolo Cathedral in January 2019. Meanwhile, Yoga who was coordinating fund transctions between other jihadists and Salvin, was arrested the following month in Sabah.
Last September, the US Treasury Department added Salvin and Sawadjaan to its list of global terrorists. According to the bulletin, Philippine authorities tagged Salvin as involved in “financial transactions, procurement, transportation of firearms and explosives, and facilitated foreign fighters to the Philippines” – very similar to what Mabanza was doing.
Included in the list were companies, individuals and money transfer offices involved in funneling money from different parts to terrorist organizations.
The sanctions blacklist followed US President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order that bolsters America’s capabilities to run after financial backers of militant groups, their leaders and supporters.
“This new authority serves to put all foreign financial institutions on notice that enabling terrorists and their financial backers to rely upon the international financial system to facilitate their malign activities will have consequences,” the US Treasury Department said in its bulletin.
While Mabanza and Salvin took on the underground non-combatant tasks of receiving and distributing money or acting as spies, there are women who have moved up to the frontline to take aim. In these screengrabs of a firefight between government troops and ASG fighters in Sulu that Rappler obtained from intelligence sources in Sulu, a woman is taking part in the shootout.
The woman is believed to be Cici Rezky Fantasy Rullie, said to be about 18 years old, daughter of the Indonesian couple who bombed the Jolo Cathedral in January 2019 and the wife of Baso. (READ: AFP confirms report: Indonesian couple behind Jolo Cathedral bombing)
Around December 2018, Baso and Cici arrived in the Philippines through Sabah. With them were Cici’s mother, Ulfah Handayani Saleh, her younger brother and younger sister. Their father, Rullie Rian Zeke, was already waiting for them.
According to IPAC director Sidney Jones, the couple has a long history of radicalization that includes terror acts in the name of JAD and a frustrated attempt to enter The Caliphate in Syria. (READ: Who were the Indonesian husband and wife behind Jolo bombing?)
The Jolo Cathedral bombing made Ulfah Handayani Saleh the first woman to take part in a suicide bombing in the Philippines. Her daughter Cici is shooting at troops from the frontlines.
Karen Aizha Hamidon, former airline ground crew and serial jihadi bride
It was India’s counter-terrorism unit that alerted Philippine authorities about Karen Aizha Hamidon’s involvement in terrorist activities. In July 2016, a group of suspected ISIS terrorists arrested in India disclosed that a Filipino woman named Hamidon had radicalized them and other Indians. Photos of Hamidon were found as attachments in their accounts on Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging application.
According to Indian intelligence, Hamidon had allegedly been radicalizing Indian youth for years and was also being suspected of recruiting fighters from other countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Bangladesh. This prompted the Indian government to request assistance from the Philippines in gathering evidence to prosecute Hamidon.
According to court documents secured by Rappler, government cyberterrorist agents went undercover in mid-2016 to monitor Hamidon’s social media movements and exchanges with other jihadists around the world.
Under the usernames “JavaNJannah” and “AQSA,” Hamidon posted voice messages in jihadi social media where she identified herself, pledged her loyalty to ISIS, and invited others to wage jihad in Marawi.
She also used her AQSA profile to post an ad to sell her washing machine for P3,000 in an online site and boosted that ad in jihadist chat groups. Undercover agents followed this exchange and posed as interested buyers to locate her.
At Hamidon’s hearing last November 28, a government witness testified that he went to the designated address and engaged Hamidon in conversation to match her voice to the online voice messages and positively identify her. “I negotiated with her to lower the price of the washing machine,” he said. Haggling was part of his cover.
It was Hamidon’s online posting of an ad about a washing machine for sale that ultimately led to her arrest.
At her hearing, she could not be heard uttering a word. Hamidon refused to speak – even when asked to state her name, instructing her lawyer instead to do so on her behalf.
Hamidon was arrested in her Taguig City home on October 11, 2017. She was charged with at least 295 counts of inciting to rebellion through social media and the internet, and is currently in detention in Camp Bagong Diwa.
Philippine intelligence sources said that two of their counterparts in India’s National Investigation Agency came to Manila in April 2018 to interrogate Hamidon about her involvement in the recruitment of Indians.
Always the bride, ever the recruiter
Hamidon, state security officers confirmed, was a former airline ground crew and business process outsourcing officer. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said she was the wife of Mohammad Jaafar “Tokboy” Maguid, Filipino founder and leader of Ansarul Khalifah Philippines (AKP), an ISIS-affiliated terrorist group allegedly behind the 2016 bombing of the Davao night market.
Maguid, who was one of the men who appeared in a January 4, 2016 video, was killed by police the following year – January 5, 2017. In that 2016 video, 4 groups made a bay’ah (pledge of loyalty) to ISIS in Basilan, signifying their consolidation of forces. The 4 consisted of the following: ASG under Hapilon, AKP under Maguid, the “Ansar Sharia Battalion,” and Abu Ammar of “Ma’rakapt Al-Ansar Battalion.”
In her counter-affidavit, Hamidon said that she was married to at least 3 men with jihadist ties.
In 2015, she married Singaporean Muhammad Shamin bin Mohamed, alias “Sidek,” over Facebook after he paid a dowry of P53,000. Sidek was arrested in Singapore for planning to join ISIS in Syria and using social media to incite violence.
The following year, she met Maguid via Telegram. He introduced himself as a member of the Moro National Liberation Front and, according to her counter-affidavit, she “fell in love with him” after one week of chatting. Hamidon flew to Sarangani province to personally meet Maguid after he paid a dowry of an undisclosed amount on March 19, 2016.
The “love” didn’t last as Hamidon divorced Maguid after just two months, in May 2016, after a joint forces raid on him. She claimed that until then she did not know that Maguid was the notorious AKP leader.
In the same affidavit, Hamidon said she then married Abdul Jalil Rickard, an American she met online.
Their wedding and personal meeting were preempted when Rickard was stopped from coming to the Philippines.
Documents on the cross-border investigation of Hamidon’s case shown to Rappler state that Rickard paid her a dowry of P119,000 (about $2,342.83)* and include the name of another husband, Ahmed Magdy, an Egyptian optomitrist who gave a dowry of P40,000 (roughly $787.4).
The documents also say that Hamidon is fluent in at least 8 languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Tausug, and Bisaya, and has both biology and psychology degrees from a university in Zamboanga and an unfinished nursing degree from a university in Manila.
Hamidon denied that she was out to meet men to radicalize them but admitted that she was looking for foreign men who could uplift her status in life. She also denied that she was used as a “honey trap” by ISIS to recruit Indian men and insisted that she is just looking for a husband and, according to the documents, considers “Indian men as good looking men who have the capability to provide for her financial needs.”
Motivated by money?
Rommel Banlaoi, a terrorist expert, described Hamidon as a “hustler” whose radicalized views may have been pumped by money rather than extremist religious beliefs. “She’s in there for the money. She would offer herself for marriage to get a dowry. That’s her racket.”
Various government intelligence sources also said that money may have been a main motivator for Hamidon and describe her as more of an opportunist rather than a security threat. She was reportedly soliciting religious donations for the orphans and widows of jihadists and on the side, recruiting jihadists from all over the globe.
A Philippine intelligence officer who asked not to be named confirmed with Rappler that apart from her terror links established through marriage, Hamidon’s path to radicalization was puzzling.
Her family was Christian and none of her 5 siblings were reported to have been involved in terrorist activities. Rappler sources confirmed that one sibling is currently working in the military.
“We don’t think the other family members knew what she was doing. From what we know, none of them visit her in detention. It seems that they don’t want to have anything to do with her,” said one of the intelligence sources.
Hamidon’s mother was present at her November 28 hearing and was seen discussing Hamidon’s detention conditions with her legal counsel, Gerry Manalili. She wanted to make sure her daughter would have the food and vitamins she needed.
Hamidon has always denied the charges brought against her, claiming that she is only an Islamic propagator, the equivalent of a Christian missionary who spreads religious teachings for “religious purposes only.”
When Hamidon was first arrested in 2017, she publicly announced her denial. She told reporters, “I’m only a woman, weak and feeble by nature. I am not capable of taking up arms against the Philippine government.”
Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst with the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), who has interviewed and studied radicalized Indonesian female migrant workers, debunked the thinking that women are only victims lured into terrorism.
“I think that narrative applies only to children,” said Nuraniyah who said that seeing women purely as victims dilutes the agency by which women willingly participate in terrorist acts.
In her mugshot and when she was presented to the media after her arrest, Hamidon wore thick, elaborate eye makeup. That was intentional on Hamidon’s part to project that she is “deeply Islamic,” according to a female intelligence officer. Thick eyeliner or kohl shows a deep Islamic faith, she explained.
Whether her motives were financial gain or promoting a call to wage jihad or both, Hamidon has established herself as an infamously prolific recruiter. She is now wanted by intelligence agencies in over a dozen countries. – with reports from Michelle Abad/Rappler.com
READ PART 2 | Women of the Eastern Caliphate: By blood and marriage
*$1 = P50.8
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said the bombing of the Jolo Cathedral was in 2018 instead of 2019. This has been corrected.