The Philippines said it killed three of South-east Asia’s most wanted terrorists in a US-supported air strike on Thursday, including a Malaysian bomb-maker wanted by the US, and a Singaporean.
Abu Sayyaf, JI leaders reportedly killed
Philippine military chiefs said the army, backed by US advisors, began a bombing raid at Parang town on the remote southern island of Jolo early on Thursday, where the militant group Abu Sayyaf is suspected to be holding kidnapped foreigners.
According to the Philippine military, the air raid killed 15 members of the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah organisations.
The Abu Sayyaf is accused of the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including the bombing of a ferry in Manila that resulted in over 100 deaths, as well as dozens of kidnappings in the remote, south. Jemaah Islamiyah is blamed for many deadly attacks in Southeast Asia including the 2002 bombing of tourist spots in Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
Among those reportedly killed was Zulkifli bin Abdul Hir, also known as Marwan, a Malaysian who is allegedly a senior member of regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and behind numerous bomb attacks in the Philippines. He is also accused of being the leader of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, a Malaysian group that like JI wants to set up an Islamic state across Southeast Asia. In 2007 the American government offered a $5 million reward for his capture, making him one of the men most wanted by the US.
Trained as an engineer in the US, Marwan has been accused of training terrorists in bomb-making. Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said, Marwan worked with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf, providing operational support to the Abu Sayyaf for killings, extortion and kidnapping.
In Malaysia, authorities celebrated the reports of Marwan's death. Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of Malaysia's special task force on counter-terrorism said, “We welcome the news of his demise as security forces in the region continue their fight against such militants.”
Another JI leader killed was Singaporean Muhammad Ali Abd Al-Rahman, also known as Mauwiyah.
Prof Gunaratna remarked, “Mauwiyah trained several hundred Philippine, Indonesian and Malaysian terrorist recruits. Married to a Filipina, he operated with the [MILF] and subsequently with Abu Sayyaf… He was engaged in kidnapping and holding workers of the International Committee for the Red Cross.”
It was reported that the US government also had a US$50,000 (S$62,400) bounty on Mauwiyah’s head.
When contacted, the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs said they are in contact with their Philippine counterparts and could not comment on the development.
The third major Abu Sayyaf leader to be reported dead by the Philippine military was Filipino Abu Pula, also known as Doctor Abu and Umbra Jumdail.
US supported Philippine air strike
A US official in Washington confirmed the strike, and said the Pentagon assisted in one of the region’s most successful anti-terrorism operations in years.
For years, US counterterrorism troops have provided crucial support to the Philippine military, including helping Filipino soldiers track Marwan using satellite and drone surveillance. About 600 US Special Forces have been deployed in southern Philippines since 2002. While US forces are only allowed to advise the Filipino soldiers and are banned from having a combat role, US-backed Philippine missions have been credited for capturing and killing hundreds of Abu Sayyaf insurgents and most top leaders since the 1990s.
Philippine military spokesman Colonel Arnufo Burgos said that US troops had provided help in Thursday’s raid.
“The US has been providing us assistance in terms of training intelligence and they are helping us in the joint operation task force based in southern Mindanao,” Colonel Burgos said. “They provided us intelligence in this case.”
A blow to regional terror groups, but some urge caution
There have been contradictory reports on whether the bodies of the three leaders have been recovered. If their deaths are confirmed, it would be a major success for the region’s anti-terror efforts.
Marwan’s death would mark the most crucial success against JI since the arrest of Indonesian suspect Umar Patek in January 2011 in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed by US commandos four months later. Patek and Marwan allegedly worked with the Abu Sayyaf to train militants in bomb-making and plot attacks, including against US troops in southern Philippines.
The attack in Jolo is also a major blow to the Abu Sayyaf's ability to recover from years of setbacks through fund raising and training of militants.
Prof Gunaratna remarked, “If confirmed, the death of these high value targets sends a powerful message to the terrorist fraternity that they will be next. And if the current momentum of operations can be maintained, by the end of this year, Abu Sayyaf can be dismantled.”
However, other security analysts in the region were cautious about speculation on the implications of the deaths.
Mars Buan, a senior analyst with the Manila-based risk consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments, was sceptical that the attacks would weaken Abu Sayyaf. “The Abu Sayyaf group remains a resilient force… They continue to attract new recruits from among family members, as well as from the disenfranchised, poor and unemployed people of Sulu who believe they have no other option but to join the militant group.”
Bryony Lau, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is based in Jakarta, Indonesia, echoed the sentiment. “The Abu Sayyaf group is quite decentralized,” she said. “When high-profile figures have been killed in the past, you still have the Abu Sayyaf operating. As to whether or not this is a significant blow to the group, that would be an extremely difficult judgment to make at this point.”
Report: Philippines kills three top Islamic militants (AFP, 2 Feb 2012)
Report: Philippines: 3 most-wanted terror leaders killed (Associated Press, 3 Feb 2012)
Report: Singaporean JI leader 'killed' in Philippine air strike (Straits Times, 3 Feb 2012)
Report: Philippine Officials Say Raid Killed Militants (NY Times, 2 Feb 2012)