Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad killed in Marawi

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Philippine marines aboard their trucks flash the victory sign as they start their pull-out from the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 19, 2017. The battle for the southern city of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, lasted more than four times longer than the US-led campaign to liberate Manila from Japanese World War II occupation forces. -- AFP

THE MALACANANG confirmed on Oct. 19, Thursday, that a top Malaysian militant tipped to become Islamic State’s (IS) point man in Southeast Asia has been killed in a battle overnight.

“The military reports the death of Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian national who have financed the rebellion in Marawi died during last night’s operations,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella said in a press briefing in Malacanang.

In a text message sent to reporters, Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesperson Maj. Gen. Restituto F. Padilla replied “yes” when asked to confirm if Mahmud Ahmad is already dead.

Earlier in the day, Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of a military task force, reported that 20 rebels among the remaining IS loyalists holed up in the devastated heart of Marawi City were killed in the latest fighting. One of those killed was believed to be Mahmud.

Mahmud’s death was a blow to any effort by Islamic State, which is on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, to establish a presence in Mindanao, an island with a history of rebellion and home to the predominantly Christian nation’s Muslim minority.

The Marawi siege has been the Philippines’ biggest security crisis in years, but some experts see it as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by militants to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.

The armed forces in a statement said 13 militants were killed overnight and seven on Monday morning.

Two hostages were rescued and information they provided meant the authorities were “increasingly becoming confident” that Mahmud was dead.

The 39-year-old former university lecturer is believed to have been pivotal in raising and channeling funds for the alliance and its foreign fighters during an occupation that has lasted 150 days, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly rebels. Central Marawi has been flattened by government airstrikes.

Some experts say Mahmud could become Islamic State’s Southeast Asian “emir” after the death on Monday of Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the alliance that seeks to carve out an Islamic State “Wilaya” in the southern Philippines.

Philippine soldiers on Oct. 16 killed Hapilon, a target of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. They also killed Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers at the helm of the Maute militant clan.

Mahmud was seen in a video alongside Hapilon and the Maute brothers plotting the Marawi siege. Security experts say he studied in Pakistan and learned to make bombs in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. He left Malaysia in 2014.

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, President Rodrigo R. Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi City from terrorists, however, there is still a need to clear buildings and arrest some of the remaining terrorists in the city.

Mr. Brawner said the military was relentless in finishing off the rebels, but was unsure how many were left. Estimates on Monday were 20 to 40 fighters.

“The resistance is still there. In fact, we can hear from the background, the battle is ongoing,” he said.

Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said the end of Mahmud would not mean the end of the extremists’ presence in Mindanao.

“There are still high-value terrorist personalities who are still at large in Mindanao, not to mention other foreign fighters coming from Indonesia and elsewhere in the Arab world,” he said on television.

“They are very, very elusive and because they mixed with the communities and at the same time, they hang out with the armed groups that have the mastery of the terrain in Mindanao. It’s very difficult for them to be caught by the military.”

Following the pronouncement of Mr. Duterte’s liberation of Marawi City, the government pledged to give P30 billion for the rehabilitation of the whole city.   — Reuters with a report from Rosemarie A. Zamora