Philippine security forces arrested the widow of a slain Malaysian terror suspect Sunday on allegations that she was supporting extremist groups, officials said.
Authorities announced the arrest of Juromee Dongon along with four others in the southern province of Lanao del Norte on Sunday, as authorities said troops had killed six members of the extremist Abu Sayyaf on the nearby island of Basilan.
Juromee was married to Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan), Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorist until January 2015, when he was killed in a police raid that went awry and also left 44 police commandos dead in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao. She was also married to Khadafy Janjalani, a Filipino extremist and senior Abu Sayyaf leader who reportedly died in 2006.
“We can confirm she is held on terrorism charges,” a security official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity, referring to Juromee.
Combined police and soldiers equipped with armored personnel carriers made the arrest following an anti-terror sweep in Lanao del Norte province Sunday morning, officials told BenarNews. They said Juromee’s father and two sisters were among those arrested during the raid in which police seized a grenade, a handgun, ammunition and bomb-making components.
The suspects would face charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, officials said.
Also on Sunday, Senior Superintendent Nickson Muksan, Basilan’s police chief, told BenarNews that six Abu Sayyaf militants were slain in a gunbattle Saturday when troops patrolling the predominantly Muslim town of Maluso came under fire from a huge group of militants.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr, the Army regional commander, said the military will continue intensifying its operations against the Abu Sayyaf.
The clashes took place four months after troops defeated a faction led by Isnilon Hapilon at the end of the five-month siege of the southern city of Marawi.
“There will be a no-let up operation against the Abu Sayyaf as our commander-in-chief himself has declared such since last year,” Galvez said, referring to President Rodrigo Duterte.
“The different Joint Task Forces are in full-throttle to get the remaining Abu Sayyaf members and to rescue their kidnap victims,” he said.
Numbering less than 500, the Abu Sayyaf, founded in the early 1990s, is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings in the southern Philippines. Over the past two years, it has beheaded two Canadians and a German captive seized separately in the south after their governments refused to pay ransom.
Hapilon, originally from Basilan, had eluded a military dragnet and travelled to Marawi last year with his band of Abu Sayyaf followers.
Hapilon, the acknowledged regional leader of the Islamic State, took over the Islamic city after joining forces with a ragtag group of bandits known as the Maute. He was also backed by fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East.
What followed was five months of bloody fighting – the fiercest in recent years in the turbulent south – that destroyed Marawi, displaced tens of thousands of residents and killed 1,200 people, mostly militants.
Filipino forces, backed by U.S. and Australian intelligence, killed Hapilon and several of his lieutenants in October, ending the siege. But dozens of others had escaped, forcing the government to extend the declaration of martial law in the south up to this year.
The latest clash took place a few days after Malaysia’s police chief exposed plans by the Abu Sayyaf to set up a base in the east Malaysian Sabah state.
Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said authorities uncovered the plans after multiple raids in the eastern Borneo state of Sabah from Jan. 25 to Feb. 6, during which security forces arrested 10 people, including seven Filipinos with Abu Sayyaf links.
“Initial investigation from the 10 suspects arrested in Sabah showed there were attempts by Abu Sayyaf to set up a cell in Sabah,” Fuzi Harun said in a statement Wednesday.
“The same terror cell could be used to launch attacks in Sabah in the future,” he said.
The botched counter-terror raid to capture Marwan, the Malaysian militant, in January 2015 led to the indictment of former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino for usurpation of official functions after he green-lighted the police operation In the Maguindanao town of Mamasapano.
Members of the police Special Action Force (SAF) successfully killed Marwan, but later became entangled in a huge firefight with guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim rebel force that had signed a peace deal with Manila.
MILF officials later testified at a congressional inquiry that they were not told about the raid beforehand, in violation of previously agreed upon protocols.
Forty-four SAF officers were killed it what is now known as the Mamasapano raid, the biggest single-day combat loss for the Philippine government in recent memory.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City and Richel Umel and Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro City contributed to this report.