MANILA: The US has added a 60-year-old leader of the pro-Daesh Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Hatib Hadjan Sawadjaan, and a female militant from Mindanao to its list of global terrorists.
The names of Sawadjaan and Almaida Marani Salvin, 30, were among those placed on the US Treasury’s sanctions blacklist released on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks.
It followed US President Donald Trump signing an executive order that enhances America’s ability to go after financiers of militant groups, their leaders and supporters. The US State Department said that the executive order was the most significant update of terrorist designations since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and “will enable the US to more effectively sanction the leaders of terrorist organizations and those who train to commit acts of terrorism.”
“The State Department is moving aggressively to implement these new authorities,” it said, adding that the designation of Sawadjaan and everyone else on the list “seeks to deny these terrorists the resources to plan and carry out attacks.”
Sawadjaan has been called the mastermind behind the suicide attacks on Sulu Islands on Jan. 27 this year. The first attack on a cathedral in Jolo city killed 23 people — including an Indonesian couple who carried out the bombing — and wounded 109 others.
The second attack on June 28 targeted an army counterterrorism unit brigade in Indanan town, killing eight people and injuring 22 others. It was also the first officially confirmed case of a suicide bombing carried out by a Filipino, identified as Norman Lasuca, in the Philippines. The other suspect in the attack was believed to be a foreigner.
A suicide bombing attempt on Sept. 8 — on another army detachment in Indanan town — involved an abaya-wearing, Caucasian-looking female who was the sole casualty. The suspect blew herself up when she attempted to enter the Army 35th IB but was stopped by a soldier who was manning the gate.
In the wake of the failed suicide attack last Sunday, Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the military was on the lookout for two more suicide bombers in Sulu who were planning to stage attacks on military camps.
Excluding the perpetrators of the Jolo Cathedral bombing, Sobejana said: “There are five of them who were anointed, who have been given the task to explode themselves.”
Besides the two involved in the June 28 attack and the suspect in the explosion last Sunday, the Wesmincom chief said: “There were two more left.”
Apart from the attacks in Sulu, Philippines officials also blamed Sawadjaan for organizing the first suicide bombing in the country — at a security checkpoint on Lamitan, Basilan province in July last year — killing at least 10 people.
But despite being identified as the mastermind behind all four suicide bombings in Mindanao, a spokesperson for the Philippines armed forces said: “Sawadjaan cannot be credited to have put up a squad of suicide bombers.”
Marine Brig. Gen. Edgar Arevalo also said that the small number of foreign terrorists believed to be in Mindanao, with no community, relatives or groups, “need to associate with Sawadjaan for survival, logistics and intelligence to carry-out their terrorism activities. Hence, the affiliation.”
“On the part of (Sawadjaan), he needs these terrorists to pursue his personal ends of becoming prominent or becoming recognized as the emir. He needs the notoriety, the grim and gruesome murder and destruction, to gain financial and logistics support from terrorist organizations abroad,” Arevalo said.
In February this year, a report by the US Department of Defense (DoD) said that Sawadjaan was “the acting Daesh emir in the Philippines,” replacing Isnilon Hapilon who was killed in the 2017 Marawi siege. However, “it was not clear what ties Sawadjaan had with the Daesh-core.”
Last month, the seventh quarterly Operations Pacific Eagle — Philippines (OPE-P) report by the DoD Office of the Inspector General stated that “while the southern Philippines has struggled with violent separatism for decades, suicide attacks were virtually unheard of until the rise of Daesh.”
Meanwhile, little is known about Salvin, who according to the US, “has materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to, Daesh-Philippines.”
Information provided by the US Treasury Department shows that Salvin was arrested in April this year in Zamboanga City “based on her suspected unlawful manufacture, sale, acquisition, disposition, importation or possession of an explosive or incendiary device.”
During the raid, Philippines authorities recovered improvised explosive device components, as well as bank accounts and passbooks for Salvin linked to Daesh-Philippines (Daesh-P) funding.
It was further stated that “as of early 2019, Philippine authorities determined Salvin, who was the wife of a Daesh-P leader, conducted financial transactions, procurement, transportation of firearms and explosives, and facilitated the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters to the Philippines.”