A top terror suspect with an FBI bounty of $5 million dollars on his head has been wounded — possibly fatally — in a clash between the Philippine armed forces and militants.
Isnilon Hapilon is believed to be the Islamic State’s representative in the Philippines, tasked with finding a new stronghold for the group as it continues to lose ground in the Middle East. (See our report here.)
The air and artillery strikes — that featured FA50 supersonic jets unleashing 500lb bombs — on the southern island of Mindanao also claimed the lives of 15 Abu Sayyaf militants, at least one of them believed to be a foreigner.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Hapilon was “seriously wounded” in military air strikes in the mountain town of Butig, in Lanao del Sur province.
“As of Friday, Hapilon is still being carried by four men in a makeshift stretcher moving northeast of Butig. Troops are in hot pursuit supported by ground artillery and air support.”
Army spokesman General Eduardo Ano said Hapilon, also known as Abu Abdullah and the declared “Emir” of Southeast Asia, was expected to die from his injuries. “He needs a blood transfusion. Without proper medical treatment, he will die,” the general said.
Philippine forces on Thursday dropped bombs and fired shells at rebel positions in the mountains on Mindanao island in a bid to flush out Hapilon. The province is a stronghold of the Maute rebel group, which has also pledged allegiance to IS.
Hapilon is on the FBI’s most wanted list for his role in the kidnapping of 17 Filipinos and three Americans in 2001 and carries a bounty of $5 million on his head.
The victims were abducted from a tourist resort in the Palawan. The militants later beheaded one American captive in their stronghold in Basilan island while another died in the crossfire with soldiers during a rescue operation in 2002. The third was freed.
One of the militants killed in this week’s military offensive was believed to be an Indonesian but Ano said they were still “digging and doing more investigation” about his background. He also said that when wounded Hapilon was with two other foreigners of uncertain nationality.
President Duterte appealed on Friday to the country’s Muslim separatist groups to deny sanctuary to militants with links to IS, warning a war would ensue that would put civilians in danger.
A day before he made the appeal, the defence minister said foreign intelligence reports showed Hapilon was getting instructions from IS to set up a new bolt-hole in the Philippines, in the strongest sign yet of links to the Middle Eastern militants.
We have also reported how Abu Sayyaf has caught the attention of would-be jihadists around the world. Currently, a British supermarket worker is on trial in London for plotting to join the group. (Read reports here, here and here.)
Duterte has said he could no longer contain the extremist “contamination” and urged two Muslim separatist rebels groups — the MILF and the MNLF — to rebuff IS’s advances.
Ano said a firefight could be expected between soldiers and Hapilon’s group following the strikes.