MANILA - A US Department of Defense (DoD) report published in the last quarter of 2018 identified Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf leader tagged in the twin blasts at the Jolo Cathedral, as the "acting emir" of the Islamic State in the Philippines.
Sawadjaan, who Philippine authorities had tagged in the Jan. 27 bombings that killed 22 and left more than 100 hurt, was known to have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
Five soldiers died and 18 more were wounded in the operation to neutralize Sawadjaan last Saturday.
"This quarter, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command 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,” read the US DoD report to the US Congress covering October to December 2018.
Although they have yet to get confirmation, Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command Spokesperson Col. Gerry Besana said he is not surprised that Sawadjaan is considered an emir of ISIS in the Philippines.
“But of course, these are all speculations kung pumasok 'yan sa mapa talaga ng (if they all really entered the radar of) ISIS. We all know that they pledged allegiance to ISIS,” he said.
Besana said being emir is coveted by most terrorist groups in Mindanao because it brings in foreign funding.
“Malaking pera kasi ang pinag-uusapan and it’s not about what you believe in. Always for the recognition kaya sila gumagawa ng kaguluhan. Kahit iilan lang ang tao nila pero kung ang magnitude at intensity of the terrorist attack is felt, makikita talaga sila,” he said.
(It's large funding we're talking about and it’s not about what you believe in. They cause destruction for recognition. Even if they only have a few members, if the magnitude and intensity of the terrorist attack is felt, they will be recognized.)
The military said the first ISIS emir in the Philippines was Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in Marawi City in October 2017, toward the end of the 5-month siege of the city led by ISIS-linked terrorists.
Professor Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said there were four candidates considered for being emir.
Apart from Sawadjaan, who is from Sulu, the other candidates are Maute terror group leader Abu Dar, who is based in Lanao del Sur, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters leader Abu Toraife of Maguindanao, and Furuji Indama, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan.
Banlaoi said Sawadjaan was the one who coddled foreign terrorists in the Philippines.
“Siya ngayon ang nagka-coddle ng pro-ISIS elements na nanggagaling sa Indonesia. In fact, maraming foreign nationals ang kina-coddle ngayon ni Sawadjaan para i-demonstrate na siya talaga ang rightful successor ni Isnilon Hapilon,” he said.
(He is coddling pro-ISIS elements from Indonesia. In fact, he is coddling many foreigners to demonstrate that he is the rightful successor of Isnilon Hapilon.)
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, however, said Abu Dar became the recognized emir of pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines after Hapilon died.
“Si Abu Dar ang unang nire-recognize, pero wala namang base si Abu Dar. Naubos lahat 'yung mga lumaban doon sa Marawi. Ang naiwan na lang doon mga tao pa rin ni Maute kaya ang may pinakamalaking base, 'yung kay Sawadjaan,” he said.
(Abu Dar was the first to be recognized but he has no base. No one was left from those who fought in Marawi. What remained there were the men of Maute, which is why Sawadjaan has the largest base.)
Año, meanwhile, said DNA samples were taken from the two pairs of feet recovered from the site of the Jolo blast, which are believed to be remains of the Indonesian suicide bombers behind the attack.
“There is a coordination meeting being conducted by representatives from Indonesia and our military in Mindanao. Kasi mayroon tayong (we have a) tripartite agreement sa kanila (with them). We will formally request for the assistance for the possible identification of those remains,” Año said.
Año said the couple stayed in the Philippines for a year and wanted Filipino terrorists to become suicide bombers like them. The Abu Sayyaf group is believed to have helped plan the attack.