THE KILLING of the two top Islamic State-inspired leaders in the Marawi siege was a huge milestone in fighting terrorism, but this will likely not end violent extremism in the southern Philippines and beyond, say officials.
On Monday, top Philippine defence officials took turns jubilantly confirming that Isnilon Hapilon – the designated emir of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, one of the Maute brothers who led the Marawi siege – were killed by government troops in an early morning assault in the main battle area.
“(Our troops) were able to get Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. They were both killed. In fact, their faces are now splashed [on] the Internet,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a televised press briefing. Government troops were also able to recover 17 hostages during the assault, he added.
Lorenzana said a female hostage who escaped earlier led the troops to the building where the two key Islamic militants were holed up in the main battle area.
Hapilon, also a key leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group notorious for beheading hostages who were unable to pay ransom money, carries a US$5 million bounty from the United States and about US$195,000 from the Philippine government.
Omar Maute, on the other hand, has a bounty of PHP5 million (around US$98,000) offered by President Rodrigo Duterte, who placed the entire Mindanao under martial law on May 23 hours after the Maute Group occupied Marawi.
The Maute Group resisted the efforts of government forces to then arrest Hapilon, triggering the Marawi crisis that displaced over 400,000 civilians, many of whom still languish in evacuation centres or with their relatives in nearby towns.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año hailed the troops for neutralising Hapilon and Omar Maute, noting that “this day marks the triumph of good over evil.”
“We have nipped the “budding” terrorism, stamped out the leaders of the Daesh (or Islamic State)-inspired terrorist group, and made an unequivocal statement— we will not allow terrorism to reign in Marawi City or elsewhere in the country,” he said in a statement.
Año said the bodies of Hapilon and Omar Maute “were recovered and physically, independently and positively identified by various individuals including former Maute hostages and surrenderers.”
Their remains will be subjected to DNA testing to authenticate they are the same wanted persons, defence officials said.
“It will be a matter of days before it can finally be declared that Marawi (is) liberated from the clutches of terrorists. From thereon, clearing operations can proceed to pave the way for the reconstruction and rebuilding in Marawi,” Año said.
He said the neutralisation of Hapilon and Omar, the last of the dreaded Maute brothers, “was the last straw that has broken the camel’s back.”
The two key leaders were killed on Day 147 of the crisis, bringing to 824 the fatalities on the terrorists’ side and 837 firearms recovered from them, the general said. A total of 1771 hostages were reportedly rescued by government troops.
He said 162 government troops were killed-in-action and over 1,000 wounded as the Marawi crisis wears on for about five months now.
“The Marawi crisis will be over – sooner than later. The resistance of – or what is left of it – the terrorists will crumble.”
Professor Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the killings of the two militants will definitely create a tactical set back for pro-Islamic State groups in Mindanao.
“But this will not mean the end of violence in the Southern Philippines and beyond. I expect retaliatory attacks from remaining leaders (of pro-Islamic State groups),” the Manila-based security analyst told Asian Correspondent.
The retaliation could come from the group of Puruji Indama, Hapilon’s deputy in the Abu Sayyaf Group and who is currently the head of the Abu Dujana Battalion of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in East Asia, Banlaoi said.
Intermittent violent attacks are also expected from a certain Naim Mujahid of the little-known Ansar Khilafa Philippines, he added.
Mujahid has a strong link with Malaysian Islamic State militant leader Dr Mahmood Ahmad, who has been operating in Mindanao since 2014, Banlaoi said. Mahmood is among the remaining foreigners fighting in Marawi, according to the military.
Banlaoi said the threats of violence can also emanate from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters headed by Abu Turaipe.
Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where Marawi is situated, lauded the government troops for killing Omar and Hapilon.
“This victory marks the end of the siege in Marawi, but it also means the beginning of a long but necessary process of healing and recovery among our people,” Hataman said.
He described what happened in Marawi as “sheer violence and terror rearing its ugly head against true Muslims and Moros.”
Hataman assured the regional government will continue to assist in the overall efforts to rehabilitate and return the displaced civilians to Marawi.