A second month of fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels in a southern Philippine city is turning to a search for a man sought by Manila as well as the United States for his leadership in terrorism over the past 20 years.
Philippine troops believe Isnilon Totoni Hapilon may be hiding in the largely demolished city of Marawi. Troops attacked Marawi May 23 because they feared Hapilon’s historically violent Abu Sayyaf group was forming links with another rebel organization there.
Hapilon thought to be in Marawi area
“The assumption of our ground commanders based on the lack of confirmation regarding his escape or flight from the area of Marawi is that he is still in the area,” Philippine armed forces spokesperson Restituto Padilla said Friday, as quoted by the presidential office website. “Our operations are focused on the possible area where he is believed to be still in hiding.”
Hapilon’s death or capture would end the direct influence of a man who has helped lead Abu Sayyaf, a group known for kidnapping foreign tourists and beheading some, since 1997. He was recently trying to extend his influence to other Muslim anti-government insurgents in the Philippines to earn respect from Islamic State, some believe.
Early on, Hapilon had been deputy head and member of a “consultative leadership council” for Abu Sayyaf, which operates from Sulu Sea islands in the largely Muslim Philippine south, the policy nonprofit Counter Extremism Project says.
U.S. wants Hapilon
After Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 tourists from a resort in 2001 and beheaded an American, the United States indicted Hapilon in absentia.
The U.S. is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information that helps capture or convict the 51-year-old man the FBI describes as “slim” and 5 feet 6 inches tall, with possible travel access to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. He graduated from engineering school from the University of the Philippines, the FBI says, though Philippine media quote the university saying Hapilon’s name isn’t on their books.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has offered the equivalent of $344,000 for the “neutralization” of Hapilon, media outlets in the country said in June.
“He’s a legend for his exploits in kidnapping high-profile tourists and as a result he’s got lots of money, and money has bought him a lot of guns and followers” said Eduardo Araral, Mindanao native and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
Hapilon, now the leader of one Abu Sayyaf faction, eventually moved to the nearby Philippine province of Lanao del Sur to establish an Islamic State caliphate “in a larger area,” the nonprofit says.
Three years ago Hapilon pledged allegiance to Islamic State, it says, and last year the terrorist group based in Iraq and Syria endorsed him as its “emir” in Southeast Asia.
Establish ties with other Muslim groups
By May Hapilon had reached Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of 200,000 people, to establish ties with 4-year-old militant organization the Maute Group, government officials have said in explaining why they started the battle. The fighting has killed 353 “terrorists” and 87 from the government, Padilla said Friday.
The wanted man had sought ties with the Maute Group to extend Abu Sayyaf influence and win favor with ISIS and possibly more clout in the global terrorist network, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
“Marawi is actually the first coordinated operation that they have and it’s more propaganda than anything else,” Casiple said. “At this point in time they’re trying to convince ISIS they can really represent all of Southeast Asia. Because of his Abu Sayyaf background he already has contacts with the Al-Qaida network in Southeast Asia.”
Thousands have died
If Hapilon were captured or killed in Marawi, Abu Sayyaf could regroup after a period of “splintering,” Araral said. Another 19 Muslim rebel groups also operate around the Sulu Sea and Philippine island of Mindanao, where related violence has left about 120,000 people dead since the 1960s.
Ethnic Moro followers of Islam who reached Mindanao centuries ago resent the Catholic Philippine majority for what they see as unequal rights to resources in the chronically impoverished south. Their anger hatched some of the rebel groups.
“The way that the Marawi impasse can escalate is if the other groups in the other areas start to move,” said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a University of the Philippines political science professor. “The survivors, they will recruit somehow. Those who are still out there will be recruiting, but in what form under whose new leaders? Isnilon Hapilon, we’re not sure where he is.”