ISNILON HAPILON, the Islamic State’s so-called “emir” in Southeast Asia, is now believed to still be in the beleaguered Marawi City, according to Philippine officials a little over a week after reports claimed he had escaped.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a briefing on Monday said Hapilon, 49, who is an internationally wanted terrorist with bounties amounting to US$5.2 million on his head, is said to be hiding in a mosque in the strife-torn city in Mindanao district.
“According to our latest information, he’s (Hapilon) still inside Marawi,” Lorenzana said during the Mindanao Hour press briefing.
“In fact, there is information we got this morning that he was hiding in one of the mosques in Marawi. I think this is maybe correct,” he added, as quoted by The Philippine Star.
Lorenzana said the information was most likely accurate, since Hapilon has yet to return to his home island of Basilan, which is also being monitored, ABS-CBN News reported.
He said the information came from local ground forces.
Fighting between security forces and the IS-linked Maute terror group erupted in Marawi City on May 23 after authorities bungled a raid on what they believed to be Hapilon’s hideout.
A 60-day martial law was declared over the island of Mindanao as gun battles continued to rock the Muslim-majority city, resulting in the evacuation of over 200,000 Filipinos and the deaths of hundreds, including over 300 terrorists, nearly a hundred government troops and over 40 civilians.
Reports over a week ago claimed Hapilon had somehow slipped out of Marawi during the ongoing melee, fuelling assumptions by local military the Maute group was on the brink of defeat.
The Philippine government later branded Hapilon a coward for abandoning his comrades in the middle of a battle.
Officials also claimed Hapilon no longer had the capacity to launch attacks on the scale of that in Marawi, thanks to efforts by government troops.
The claims, however, run counter to fears of a wider campaign across the Philippines empowered by foreign fighters and access to heavy weaponry.
Isnilon was reportedly picked as the IS designated leader for the Southeast Asian region last year.
The Arabic-speaking preacher has a long history of ties with local extremist movements. He was once a commander of Islamic separatist group the Moro National Liberation Front. He later joined the Abu Sayyaf Group, the IS-affiliated terror network responsible for a number of kidnap-for-ransom cases and beheadings in the south.
According to Inquirer, Isnilon gained notoriety outside of the Philippines due to his role in the kidnapping of 20 hostages from a Filipino resort in 2001. The victims included three US citizens, one of whom was later beheaded.
In 2002, the US Department of Justice placed a bounty of US$5 million for his capture on its “Most Wanted Terrorist” list.
In early June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte offered a PHP10 million (US$200,000) bounty for Hapilon.