TOP Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon remains holed up in Marawi, the Defense Department said Monday, retracting earlier claims by the military that he had already left the war-torn city.
“According to our latest info, he is still inside Marawi. In fact, there is information that we got this morning that he is hiding inside one of the mosques in Marawi,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a briefing Monday.
Hapilon, who was designated as “emir” of Islamic State-inspired forces in Southeast Asia, has yet to arrive in Basilan, which is considered the bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf, Lorenzana said.
“Three fighters arrived in Basilan, but Isnilon was not one of them. We believe he is still in Marawi,” he said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines had earlier said it was verifying information that Hapilon had abandoned the Maute group in Marawi, as government troops continue to pursue the terrorists.
Hapilon carries a bounty of $5 million from the United States government and P10 million from President Rodrigo Duterte.
In a CNN interview, a former ASG member who hid behind the name of “Abu Jihad,” said that Hapilon’s brutality “will not end only in Marawi.”
“They might succeed [in holding Marawi],” he said. “But they also know, in case they might not succeed, at least they have been tested. They have tried.”
He added that Hapilon’s ability to bring together disparate militant groups—separated along ethnic lines—under the black banner of ISIS, has demonstrated his success as a commander.
“It has never happened before that militant groups in the Philippines have come together,” he said, citing the difficulty of uniting the area’s tribal groups, like the Maranao and the inhabitants of his home island of Basilan.
“I know the culture of the Maranao. And I know the culture of Basilan. And Maranao people do not unite with Basilan,” he said.
While the military has expressed confidence that the crisis will be over soon, security experts worry that the Marawi attack was just part of a bigger plan of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
Lorenzana, however, said he is confident that the IS-linked militants won’t be able to launch more attacks.
“What happened in Marawi is that we were able to neutralize a lot of those Abu Sayyaf that came from Jolo and Basilan. So, we have reduced their numbers. I don’t know how many more are left in Jolo. We are still trying to verify how many are still there in Jolo and Basilan and our troops are still operating there, also,” he said.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to the terror group has been considered the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The rise of pro-ISIS groups in the country has also raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.