KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia’s most wanted terrorist Mahmud Ahmad appears to have become a key figure to watch in the region as he may be installed as the Islamic State’s (IS) new emir for Southeast Asia, a security expert said.
This comes in the wake of a leadership vacuum left by the death of the last emir, Isnilon Hapilon, who was also a leader in the Abu Sayyaf terror group based in southern Philippines, today.
Another top militant leader, Omar Maute, the co-founder of the Maute group which launched deadly attacks on Marawi City in Mindanao together with the Abu Sayyaf in May, has also been killed in a protracted conflict with the Philippine army.
His brothers, including fellow Maute group founder Abdullah, was also killed in earlier clashes.
“With the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers, it’s hard to see anyone else in a leadership position,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the US-based National War College.
“The four top Southeast Asians in Syria were all killed. That leaves Dr Mahmud, if he did indeed escape from Marawi,” Abuza, whose research focuses on Southeast Asian security issues, told FMT.
Mahmud, who has a PhD in Islamic studies from a Malaysian university, is a respected figure among the militant network where he is called “doctor”.
He was reportedly trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.
A former hostage of the militants had told FMT earlier that he was the “ustaz” or religious teacher who would lecture about jihad (religious battles) to hostages within the mosque stronghold after congregational prayers.
“If Mahmud is alive, he is really someone to watch. He has connections to IS central or what’s left of it, likely played a role in getting the IS media productions in Marawi, and has religious or theological training,” Abuza said.
He added that a new regional leader may also be selected from the ranks of the Ansar al-Khalifah Philippines (AKP), another group that has pledged allegiance to IS.
Before the Mautes burst onto the scene, the AKP was said to be the group to watch because of its connections to militants in Indonesia.
“The AKP has been relatively unscathed in the recent fighting and has more established ties to Indonesian jihadist networks,” Abuza said. “They may be waiting to pick up the pieces.”
He also warned that the Maute loyalists may regroup elsewhere as they were getting squeezed by the Philippine army’s heavy offensive.
“What’s left of the Mautes will be able to regroup because they have a significant degree of sanctuary around that area.
“At the least they are passively protected by MILF’s (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) Abdullah Macapagar who deters the military’s intervention, or at the most gives them active sanctuary,” said Abuza.
The MILF, a former insurgent group, has of late had improved ties with the Philippine government.
Concern about Philippine military complacency
There is also a concern that someone could step up to be the new emir.
“My real concern is on the government’s obsession with decapitating the leadership,” Abuza said. “Someone will step up. They always do. Some are more charismatic and better leaders than others.”
He said at the rate groups were defecting from the MILF, there was no shortage of candidates emerging for the leadership post.
Abuza said the biggest worry is the government’s complacency that led to the Marawi conflict.
“There is a real concern that the Philippine armed forces are going to declare IS defeated and drop the ball,” he said.
“I understand that the troops have fought over a long four to five months, but we really need to be concerned about Philippine complacency. That’s what led to this in the first place.”
The conflict erupted on May 23 when security forces tried to arrest Hapilon in Marawi but they reportedly underestimated the strength of his armed support.
More than 1,000 people, mostly militants, have been killed since then.