The notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group has been dealt a crippling blow with many key leaders killed in the past month. Some known gunmen involved in the beheading of hostages, including Malaysian Bernard Thien, were among those killed in the intensified offensive.
Among those that intelligence sources believe have been killed are Idang Susukan and Majan Sahidjuan, also known as Apo Mike, while many others are now on the run as the Philippine military closes in on them.
Apo Mike, Idang and his brother Atai are among 23 Filipino nationals who are on the Eastern Sabah Security Command’s (Esscom) wanted list.
The suspects’ known names and pictures were made public last November in a bid to capture the criminals believed to be behind a series of cross-border kidnappings in Sabah’s east coast. Among those on the run include Alhabsi Misaya and Muamar Askali or Abu Rami who is said to be the gunmen’s negotiator for the release of the hostages.
So far, the Philippine military has only announced the death of Buchoy Hassan, also known as Black or Bocoi, but intelligence sources believe others like Apo Mike have been killed. Confirmation of their identities is pending.
Col. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, said Idang was seriously wounded in an encounter with soldiers, while his brother Jaber was killed in the incident about two weeks ago.
The Philippine military has said that Bocoi was among 30 Abu Sayyaf members killed in military operations against the gunmen believed to have beheaded the kidnap victims. Thien was beheaded in November 2015.
The latest case was when German Jurgen Kantner, 70, was beheaded in Jolo in late February after demands for a US$600,000 (2.6 million ringgit) ransom were not met.
Jolo-based anti kidnapping activist Prof Octavio Dinampo said Atai, an Abu Sayyaf sub commander, had also been killed along with his wife and Idang’s wife.
“It is becoming more difficult for the gunmen. There has been no let up in the offensive and they have to be on the move constantly,” he said in a telephone interview from Jolo.
He said the military operations had become so intense that Alhabsy, who barely escaped the dragnet in Bungao, was believed to have fled to the nearby island of Tungkil.
Other Abu Sayyaf leaders in the Malaysian wanted list are Hatib Hajan aka Sawadjaan, Salip Sosong aka Mohamad Apsa Abdulla, Saidul Idul, Halipa, Ibrahim, Sabri Madrasul aka Salip Jul, Las Pangit, Alden Bagde aka Sayning, Marajan Asiri, Raden Abuh, Bocoi, Sangbas, Berong Sairol aka Boy Master, Bensaudi Sairol aka Boy Pangit, Boy Intel, Atai Susukan and Durog Hussein.
Also in the list are the neutralised Muktadil brothers Khadafy and Salvador aka Badong.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said that the security forces were focusing on two factions of the Abu Sayyaf – the one in Jolo focusing on kidnap-for-ransom and the other in Basilan island bent on waging Islamic State (IS) violence in the Philippines.