The Philippine army on Tuesday said it was hunting down a Malaysian professor primed to be next Isil leader in Southeast Asia after the terrorist movement’s two most senior regional commanders were killed in battle.
Isil’s Southeast Asia emir, Isnilon Hapilon, and Omarkhayam Maute, leader of the Isil-affiliated Maute group were shot on Monday morning in a surgical operation carried out by Philippine special forces in the besieged southern city of Marawi.
The army is in the final stages of liberating the Muslim city in the province of Mindanao after it was invaded by Isil-linked terrorists on May 23, causing 360,000 to flee.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi liberated on Tuesday, although the military said 20-30 rebels were holding about 20 hostages and still fighting it out.
In a rousing address to soldiers, Duterte said he would never again allow militants to stockpile so many weapons, but Marawi was now free and it was time to heal wounds and rebuild.
"I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from terrorist influence, that marks the beginning of rehabilitation," Duterte, wearing a camouflage cap and dark sunglasses, said during his unannounced visit.
But the morale boost of gunning down the terrorist leaders was short-lived after it emerged that Mahmud Ahmad, 39, the group’s Malaysian financier and chief recruiter, could take over the reins.
Ahmad, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and worked as a university lecturer in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, was named as Hapilon’s second-in-command in a July report by the Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict [IPAC].
Sitting in the inner circle of the Marawi command centre, he was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or Isil in the Middle East, said the report.
“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr Mahmud…he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones told Reuters.
Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as “the most important ISIS leader in Southeast Asia.”
Mahmud grew up in a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb, before studying at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s and training at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.
In 2000, he returned home and to lecture at the University of Malaysia, while also writing a book on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah.
He was put on Malaysia’s most-wanted list in April 2014 after joining Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which is notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings.
His current location is unknown. General Eduardo Ano, head of the Philippines Armed Forces, said on Tuesday that he was “still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians.”
However, Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, claimed in July that Mahmud had “managed to sneak out of from Marawi City to another safe place with his followers.”
The army’s pledge to target all remaining terrorists has not reassured Marawi locals, many of whom have lost their homes.
“We’re afraid that they [terrorists] are planning another revenge attack after the killing of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. Maybe it will spread to Basilan, Hapilon’s home turf, or to another city near Marawi,” city government employee, Alihussein Datuharon, told the Telegraph.