Jolo blast mastermind is ISIS PH's acting emir – U.S. Defense

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 7) — Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, alleged mastermind in the deadly Jolo bombings, is believed to be the Islamic State's new acting leader in the Philippines, the U.S. Defense Department said.

"This quarter, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) reported that it had no update on the status of an ISIS-P (ISIS Philippines) emir, but it still believed Hatib Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf Group sub-unit commander, was the acting emir," according to the latest quarterly report of the U.S. Department of Defense on the Philippines. 

The report said that the main ISIS group in Iraq and Syria (ISIS-Core) have not confirmed an emir and that Sawadjaan's ties with it remained unclear. It said while military officials have been quoted by media reports as identifying Abu Dar, a Maute Group leader as a potential ISIS-P emir, no unified leader has been recognized by extremist groups in the country as of this quarter.

Sawadjaan is the subject of the government forces' manhunt operation as the mastermind of the bombings in a Jolo church on January 27, which killed 23 and wounded dozens.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año also earlier said Sawadjaan has replaced Isnilon Hapilon, a slain Abu Sayyaf commander.

Hapilon, believed to have been anointed as emir of ISIS-linked forces in Southeast Asia, was in killed in 2017 after leading ISIS-linked extremists that laid seige on Marawi City.

The U.S. report said that ISIS-P is still active in Mindanao, with approximately 300-500 fighters but its activities remain limited to the Sulu archipelago. It noted that the terror group was unable to expand its areas of operation and influence in the last quarter of 2018, noting the weakening of ISIS operations worldwide.

"USINDOPACOM attributed the group's weakness to its fragmented membership in the Philippines and its frayed relationship with the core ISIS group," the report said. 

It added, "USINDOPACOM also reported that ISIS-P was no longer receiving the same level of financial support and quality media coverage from international affiliates... However, this may be attributed to a weakening of the global ISIS organization."

It said the AFP still needs extensive help from U.S. when it comes to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). In the report, the U.S. Special Operation Command Pacific said the AFP has "limited ability to collect information on a target and provide that intelligence to a unit on the ground to act on it" due to lack of assets and "institutional problem, using its limited ISR assets for live tracking of active operations to provide a semblance of battle tracking for friendly and suspected enemy elements rather than strategic threat analysis."

Meanwhile, Joint Task Force Sulu commander Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo on Thursday said they are verifying reports that government troops were able to kill notorious Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Idang Susukan.

"Oo, pero wala pa tayong confirmation... Sub-leader ng Abu Sayyaf 'yun, isa 'yan sa mga kilalang commander, sub-commander. Mga high-profile kidnapping, sa kanya 'yan. Malaki ang grupo niyan," he said.

Pabayo added Susukan may have been killed during the February 2 clash between government forces and members of Sawadjaan's group.

Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesperson Brig. Gen Edgard Arevalo said Susukan possibly died due to injuries.

"Progress reports from various sources on the ground indicate that he eventually died due to the severe injuries he sustained in that firefight... Our troops in the area endeavor to locate his remains for us to conclusively report through DNA test that he indeed is dead," he said.