PETALING JAYA: Analysts believe wanted Malaysian militant Amin Baco may be on the move to elude Philippine authorities and create a unified Islamic State (IS) alliance in Mindanao.
This follows conflicting reports of late on the whereabouts of the Sabahan militant.
One report said he was hiding in the mountains off Sulu’s Patikul town under the protection of his father-in-law, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a leader in an Abu Sayyaf faction.
Another report said he could be protected by an IS-aligned group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in Maguindanao.
“I would say it is likely Amin Baco has been on the move, to elude the army as well as to try and create a unified IS alliance,” Michael Quinones, a research associate focusing on jihadist activities in the Pacific rim, told FMT.
“During Marawi, there were attacks claimed by IS media in Patikul, Sulu in June and in Maguindanao in August, with Esmail Abdulmalik @ Abu Turayfie’s group Jamaatul Mujahideen Wal Ansar (JMWA) fighting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“Now, there are claims that Baco is being protected in both places,” said Quinones, a research associate with the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).
JMWA is a BIFF faction while MILF was a rebel group that has improved ties with the Philippine government.
According to Quinones, back in September and October when Amin was fighting in Marawi, the Philippine army was chasing JMWA and foreign fighters all over Ligusan, along the Maguindanao-North Cotabato border.
“After Marawi, Baco could have been in the Maguindanao-North Cotabato border and escaped to Basilan or Sulu and gone back,” he said.
“If we look at the BIFF operations in Maguindanao, we know that they launched an attack campaign around the 2017 new year, exactly when now-slain IS emir-designate for Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon and 30 men were said to have set off from Basilan to Lanao del Sur, where Marawi is provincial capital.
“We can now compare Hapilon’s movements to Baco’s a year later.”
Quinones said there was a BIFF campaign at Mount Firis in Maguindanao late December last year, with the army’s 6th Infantry Division commander Arnel Dela Vega calling their attacks diversionary tactics.
“We also see there was a BIFF campaign by one commander Agila in Pigcawayan on Jan 9-10.
“Right now, we see an overall trend of the BIFF factions banding together and MILF not posing a threat to them. We’re also seeing an Abu Sayyaf campaign on Basilan.
“Baco could be the guy who goes to every faction or location providing funds, weapons and setting strategy. He’s most connected in Basilan and Sulu.”
Abu Sayyaf is a rebel group with factions including those that have pledged allegiance to IS.
Militants toggle back and forth
Veryan Khan, TRAC’s editorial director and expert on political violence, said it was possible that both seemingly conflicting reports were right.
“A lot of high-profile militants toggle back and forth between locations to undermine capture and because they are in high demand for morale and training in different areas,” she told FMT.
“When I heard that Amin Baco was under the protection of Sawadjaan, it seemed plausible.
“It seems equally as plausible that he would want to ‘help’ the BIFF cause. I have also heard that Amin Baco travels to Basilan a bit too.”
Amin, who is from Tawau, Sabah, eluded the Philippine authorities on at least two occasions – during the botched 2015 raid in Mamasapano to detain Malaysian Bali bomber Zulkifli Hir @ Marwan, and in the five-month battle of Marawi last year.
At one time, Amin was touted to be one of 10 candidates to replace his father-in-law Isnilon as IS’ leader for the region, although some experts believe a Filipino stood a better chance of succeeding the Abu Sayyaf leader who was killed in Marawi.