MARAWI: Philippine troops were Tuesday hunting down a Malaysian militant tipped to take over as the head of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, after the killing of the organisation’s former leader.
Mahmud Ahmad is the top remaining target for Philippine forces battling to end the nearly five-month siege of Marawi that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and left the Muslim-majority city in ruins.
The military claimed a major breakthrough Monday when it announced the death of Isnilon Hapilon, said by President Rodrigo Duterte and security analysts to be a key figure in the IS push to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate as they suffer battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria.
“Mahmud remains… one of our high-value targets in the operations being conducted,” military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla said Tuesday.
He added troops were fighting in a zone comprising about 60 to 80 buildings in the ruined city.
“We are focused on a ground offensive because the fighting is too close.”
Padilla said Mahmud Ahmad was among 20 to 30 militants, including up to eight foreign fighters, remaining in Marawi, Padilla said. They are still holding about 20 hostages.
Terrorism expert Ahmad Kumar Ramakrishna from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said if Mahmud Ahmad survived he would likely take over the leadership of IS-linked fighters in the southern Philippines.
The militant is also reported to be a university lecturer in his home country who was in charge of raising finances from abroad for the jihadists and recruitment.
Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon, authorities said.
The military said Monday Hapilon — who figured on the US “most wanted terrorists” list — was killed in a dawn offensive alongside Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who allied with Hapilon to plot the takeover of the city.
Since then more than 1,000 people have been killed and 400,000 residents displaced as insurgent were hit with a relentless US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with troops.
The restive south of the Philippines is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency and to extremist gangs that have declared allegiance to IS, including notorious kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.
On Tuesday, the military said it raised the alert level in a part of the southern Philippines as it warned against retaliatory attacks from sympathisers of the militants.
The directive included tightening border security to prevent militants from moving around the archipelago.
The United States, a longtime defence ally of the Philippines, vowed on Tuesday to support the military’s final push in Marawi.
“The US Government will continue to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the final phases of this operation, and looks forward to cooperating in assuring the stabilisation and rehabilitation of Marawi,” US embassy press attache Molly Koscina told AFP.