Despite double blow, ISIS still a regional threat
Top militants killed in offensive to end Marawi siege
KUALA LUMPUR The reported death of a top South-east Asia leader in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a major blow to the jihadists, but analysts warned that the group remains a potent threat, with battle-hardened fighters set to return from the Middle East.
Isnilon Hapilon is said to have been killed early yesterday in southern Philippines during a military offensive to end the months-long siege of Marawi.
The military said the leader - who was on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted Terrorists list - died in a dawn offensive alongside Omarkhayam Maute, who allied with Hapilon to plot the takeover of the city.
Gunmen supporting ISIS had overrun the predominantly Catholic country's main Muslim city in May following a failed attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon.
Hapilon, a key figure in Philippine kidnap-for-ransom outfit Abu Sayyaf, emerged as the leader of ISIS in South-east Asia last year, when a video showing militants from the group urging extremists to unite under his leadership appeared.
Maute was a leader of the Maute group, a ragtag outfit that emerged from a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion on the Philippine island of Mindanao, which Marawi is on.
His group pledges allegiance to ISIS and joined forces with Hapilon to overrun Marawi.
Hapilon and Maute were the final two extremist leaders holding out against a military offensive to oust the militants from Marawi. Last month, Abdullah Maute - another key leader of the Maute group and Omarkhayam Maute's brother - was killed in fighting.
Hapilon was key to ISIS' efforts to establish a base in South-east Asia as the jihadists increasingly lost ground in the Middle East.
His reported death is "a significant operational and symbolic blow to ISIS-linked groups in Mindanao and to ISIS Central in Syria as well", said terrorism expert Kumar Ramakrishna from Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
But he cautioned it is far from the end for ISIS in South-east Asia.
"ISIS-linked militants there will regroup... and lay low for a while, while rebuilding their strength," he said.
He said a Malaysian militant involved in the Marawi siege, Mahmud Ahmad, if still alive would likely rise up to lead the ISIS-linked fighters in the southern Philippines and stay in contact with the jihadists in the Middle East.
Mahmud is reportedly a university lecturer who was in charge of raising finances for the jihadists and recruitment.
It is not clear how many ISIS-supporting militants there are in South-east Asia, but many local militant outfits have pledged allegiance to the group.
Hundreds of militants - particularly from Indonesia, which has the world's biggest Muslim population, and the Philippines - are believed to have flocked to the Middle East to fight with ISIS.
Dr Sidney Jones, head of Jakarta-based security think-tank Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, warned that the authorities now face a growing threat of battle-hardened fighters returning to South-east Asia as the noose closes on ISIS in the Middle East, with their former stronghold of Raqa close to being captured.
Authorities have been particularly concerned about Khatibah Nusantara, a South-east Asian unit of ISIS fighters in Syria.
"I think the attention is going to shift back again to the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq," she said. - AFP