KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A year after the battle for Marawi, the Philippines has not solved many of the issues concerning foreign fighters it claims were killed in the five-month conflict with Islamic State-affiliated groups in the southern city.
The Defense Post reported in October that the Armed Forces of the Philippines had issued a presentation slide to a terrorism expert that showed the military had identified 32 foreign fighters among militants killed in Marawi, the first such list issued by the Philippine military. At least two of those killed appeared to be children.
The AFP listed Malaysian militant Dr. Mahmud Ahmad as one of the foreign fighters killed, but the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), the Malaysian agency responsible for security in the east coast of the Borneo state of Sabah – which shares maritime borders with the southern Philippines – still lists the former academic as one of 16 men wanted for trans-border crimes including terrorism.
Also on the list is Amin Baco, a seasoned Malaysian militant from Sabah. The Philippine authorities said he was killed in October 2017 near the end of the Marawi battle, but Moro National Liberation front leader Yusop Jikiri later said he had escaped the battle zone and gone into hiding, a claim the Philippine military said they would investigate.
The remaining 14 people on Esscom’s wanted list are Filipinos.
It is not clear whether Amin is among the 32 fighters the AFP believes were killed in Marawi, because information made available to The Defense Post included only 16 names, but his teenage son Ahmad Malqasi is listed.
“We still list Dr. Mahmud Ahmad and Amin Baco as alive and wanted because we have yet to receive official confirmations of their deaths,” Esscom commander Deputy Commissioner of Police Hazani Ghazali told The Defense Post.
Ahmad Mahmud is said to have been an influential senior militant and financier of the Islamic State East Asia affiliates Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups’ Marawi operations. He reportedly received combat training at an al-Qaeda camp under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan while studying at a university in Pakistan before returning home to work as an Islamic studies lecturer at Malaysia’s top institution, Universiti Malaya.
Last year, this writer reported for Free Malaysia Today that about 80 foreign militants, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, were involved in the Marawi siege laid by the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups in order to create an ISIS stronghold in the region.
Questions have arisen following the Philippine military’s “semi-official” release of the list of 32 foreign fighters killed in the battle.
“If there were about 80 foreigners in Marawi and the AFP is saying there are 32 identified killed foreign fighters, what has happened to the remaining fighters, some 60 of them?” a Malaysian security source told The Defense Post.
“Apparently, these militants are unaccounted for, alive or dead, the bodies of the latter found or not found. The AFP might have had a problem in identifying the bodies of those found,” said the source, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.
“Even some corpses of local militants remained unidentified when they were buried because their family members had refused to come forward to claim them out of embarrassment and other reasons.”
Philippine cooperation with Malaysia
Malaysian police chief Fuzi Harun lamented last year that despite media reports quoting Philippine military officials as saying Malaysian nationals were killed, police in the country had not received official confirmation of deaths of all its citizens in Marawi from their neighbors.
Philippine media widely reported last year that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation helped the government identify slain Marawi siege leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute through DNA matching procedures.
But there have been no reports of similar airtight identification procedures carried out on the dead foreign fighters despite offers of help from the Malaysian government. News reports said that bodies of fighters, local and foreign such as Mahmud, had been identified through visual identification procedures.
Fuzi said that Malaysian police had collected DNA samples from Mahmud’s family in Malaysia and offered it to the Philippines for testing but the offer has not been taken up.
Fuzi also asked for the repatriation of Mahmud’s body, a request that has not been been met.
Experts say the lack of official confirmation is brought about by several factors.
“Up until now, we have not received official confirmation on all Malaysian militant deaths in Marawi,” Malaysian police counterterrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told The Defense Post.
“We also have no intelligence on Amin’s son Ahmad Malqasi,” he said, stressing the lack of cooperation from the Philippine authorities.
American University terrorism researcher Munira Mustaffa said problems exist because Philippine authorities likely lack the capacity to definitively identify so many fighters due to inadequate resources or equipment.
“Last I checked, there was an article that reported they have to work with only two DNA analysis machines,” Munira told The Defense Post.
Officially confirming Mahmud’s death has advantages, but not doing so offers other benefits, according to Munira.
“Considering Dr. Mahmud Ahmad’s significant position within ISEA, there are some things to consider. One could argue that positively identifying such bodies as that of Dr. Mahmud Ahmad can be used as a decapitation tactic, i.e. the death of the key moneyman could demoralize the group and influence their mortality,” she explained.
“Conversely, by confirming his death, they could also risk reprisal, thus igniting the group’s resolution to consolidate themselves even more and avenge their losses.”
“Therefore, the Philippine authorities have to weigh the risks involved to make the correct strategic call,” Munira concluded.
Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., said it is important for some members of the Philippine leadership to attain some degree of certainty.
“But DNA testing is not cheap, nor is it that fast. While it is routinely used in some countries, that is not the case in the resource-pour Philippines,” he told The Defense Post.
Identifying the Basilan bomber
In July, Islamic State claimed the perpetrator of a suicide bombing at a Basilan military checkpoint was a Moroccan member of the Abu Sayyaf group known as Abu Khatir Al-Maghribi. ISIS also released a photo of the man.
Philippine authorities have yet to announce positive and official identification of the bomber, which could potentially involve cooperation with the Moroccan government.
“Their reluctance to do this could be rooted in the Philippines worrying that it might risk making them look bad for not knowing who or exactly how many of them are there in Mindanao,” said Munira, formerly an analyst at the Kuala Lumpur-based Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
“Similarly, there is a real fear of reprisal, including attracting avengers from outside,” Munira said. “And on that tangent, I think there is a real concern in that because the presence of foreign fighters from as far as Europe or MENA could confirm that ISIS’s threats of turning the southern Philippines into the new battle ground away from Iraq and Syria are slowly becoming concrete.”
“Following that logic, it would be critical for them to downplay their significance and discredit ISIS in order to diminish their influence on new or potential recruits. Also, this situation could jeopardize current engagement and peace efforts on the ground. Similarly, the slowness could be a sign of them being overwhelmed by their lack of resources and they could also be reluctant to reveal capabilities in forensics and hence intelligence.”
Abuza believes the Philippine authorities have painted themselves into a corner with their original assertion that the Basilan incident was an extortion attempt and that there was no suicide bombing.
“They are under such pressure to show that there are no ties between militants and ISIS that they come up with these nonsensical explanations in the hopes to satisfy regional partners and allies,” he said.
“DNA testing would confirm the Moroccan suspect’s identity, but it would undermine their own narrative of what happened. Do they want the facts or try to save face?”
Flow of foreign fighters after Marawi
About 100 foreign militants from 16 countries, mainly Indonesia and Malaysia, have entered Mindanao since the Marawi battle ended in October 2017, according to information obtained from the Philippine authorities.
The Defense Post reported in September that this year had already seen previously unprecedented attempts by Europeans trying to join ISIS in the Philippines, with some successfully making the journey. Although only a handful of Europeans have succeeded, the risk that this is the beginning of a larger trend should be a concern for the Philippines, nearby nations, and Europe.
The Malaysian security source said various ideas and initiatives to help boost regional counterterrorism cooperation already in discussion could solve such problems plaguing Southeast Asian nations.
“Providing official foreign militant death confirmations to neighboring nations should be a basic thing in the regional fight against terrorism,” the source said.
“Otherwise, there’ll be no closure of cases for the various nations, which will be compounded by the arrival of fresh foreign fighters in southern Philippines.”