By Arab News
By Ellie Aben
Islamic State has suffered a major setback in East Asia. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported to have killed two of the main leaders of Daesh who have held parts of Marawi city on Mindanao in the Philippines since May 23.
The crisis has left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly members of the Maute group, but including 162 soldiers and policemen, and 47 civilians.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday announced the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute. The two men were killed during an early morning ground assault on the remaining stronghold of the Maute group in Marawi.
“I confirm the killing of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute,” Lorenzana said. The bodies of the slain militant leaders have been recovered and will be subjected to DNA tests, he added.
AFP Chief Gen. Eduardo Año called their deaths “the straw that has broken the camel’s back” and claimed “the Marawi crisis will be over sooner than later.”
Hapilon, a former Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader regarded by the US as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, was Daesh’s designated leader for Southeast Asia. The US had placed a $5 million bounty on him, while the Philippine government had offered a 17.4 million peso bounty (approximately $348,000).
Maute was the co-founder, along with his brother Abdullah, of Daesh. Maute had a 5 million peso bounty on his head.
Lorenzana said the offensive began at 2 a.m. and lasted around four hours. It was triggered by information provided by a former female hostage on the location of Isnilon and Maute, he added.
“She was able to confirm the presence of Isnilon and Maute in that particular building.”
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Hapilon was hit in the chest during an exchange of fire with government forces. Maute was shot in the head by a sniper.
Año said troops were also able to recover seven other bodies of suspected militants.
The operation also resulted in the rescue of 20 civilian hostages, including a two-month-old girl.
Steve Cutler, an international security analyst and former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Manila, told Arab News that the death of Hapilon and Maute is a major setback for Daesh.
“It is a huge blow to Daesh… and any dreams that Daesh have of establishing a caliphate here.”
Cutler said that the longer the Marawi crisis continues, the more strength the narrative of Daesh establishing a caliphate in East Asia has. But the death of the two leaders, he said, completely changes that narrative.
“These deaths are game changers. They remove the guiding lights — the leading personalities of the movement here,” Cutler said. They will be replaced, he added, but “the replacements are not charismatic leaders of the caliber of these two.”
And while the death of Hapilon and Maute diminishes the morale of the militants, it greatly improves that of the Philippine government.
“It strengthens the general view of the competence of the Philippine forces and their ability to fight effectively,” Cutler said. “Daesh is under destruction in the Middle East and their plans for the Philippines to become a hub in Southeast Asia are severely damaged.
“(The militants) will continue to fight, and will kill more. They are still dangerous and cannot be underestimated. But they will not succeed (in their aims),” he added.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple, however, while admitting it was a major blow to Daesh, described the deaths of the two militant leaders as “a temporary setback.”
“This will not stop them,” he said. “Remember, Daesh is a religious organization.” He warned that their deaths do not mean there is no longer a Daesh “presence” in the Philippines.
“There’s still the ASG and other groups (such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters),” he said, noting that a new generation with Daesh-provided strategies and tactics will eventually replace them.
Año believes it will just be a matter of days before the government can finally declare that Marawi has been freed from Daesh’s control.
“I’m certain that the neutralization of Hapilon and Omar is the last straw. The terrorists will crumble. It is a dead-end. There is nowhere to go for them,” Año said. He then urged the remaining Maute fighters to free their hostages.
Lorenzana said government forces are still pursuing Mahmud Ahmad, said to be Malaysia’s most wanted terrorist. Ahmad is suspected of channeling more than P30 million (approximately $600,000) from Daesh to fund the Marawi siege.
The army believes he is currently in one of the buildings inside the main battle zone.
Around 30 militants, including eight foreign terrorists, reportedly remain in the area. The militants are also believed to still hold 22 civilian hostages.