- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2017

The reputed “emir” of Islamic State’s burgeoning terror cell in the southern Philippines and one of the group’s senior commanders were killed by government forces during operations in the besieged city of Marawi, defense officials in Manila confirmed Monday.

Isnilon Hapilon, who had led the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf terror group before pledging allegiance to ISIS in 2014, was killed during a military rescue operation in the southern Philippine city, which has been under the terror group’s control for over four months.

Omar Maute, a top commander of the ISIS-affiliated terror group bearing his family’s name, was also killed in the raid by Philippine forces said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday.

“We have received a report from [Armed Forces of the Philippines] ground commanders in Marawi that the operation conducted by government forces to retake the last remaining Daesh-Maute stronghold in the city has resulted in the death of the last terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, and that their bodies have been recovered by our operating units,” Mr. Lorenzana told reporters, using the derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

The ISIS affiliate known as the Maute Group overran Marawi, 64 miles south of the provincial capital of Cagayan de Oro, in July after a failed raid by Philippine military and police on Mr. Hapilon’s base near the city. The city has remained under ISIS control since then, despite a vigorous campaign by Philippine forces to drive them out.

Despite Mr. Hapilon’s death, Maute fighters and government troops remain locked in brutal, street-by-street fighting inside Mawari. The city and surrounding areas have been under military rule since May, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the region.

Maute Group’s hold on Mawari has been bolstered by an influx of advanced weaponry and combat-hardened ISIS advisers — mostly from the Middle East and Chechnya — directed into the country by the group’s operational leadership in Syria, analysts say.

Aside from operational support, the Maute Group and other ISIS affiliates in southeast Asia have also adopted some of the terror group’s successful propaganda tactics, including ISIS’s advanced social media, presence to expand its presence in the region.

That support is seen as an attempt by ISIS leaders to focus on the Pacific to establish its extremist caliphate, once it it pushed from its strongholds in the Middle East.

It remains unclear what, if any, role U.S. special operations forces based in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, which lies over 250 miles east of Marawi, in providing intelligence and logistics support to Philippine forces during the rescue operation.

Officially, the Pentagon says those American forces stationed in Zamboanga are only advising and assisting Philippine forces battling ISIS in Mawari and do not have a active combat role.

But in June, Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said American special operations troops had “been moved to help ground forces in Marawi.” He declined to say how many American troops were in Marawi, saying only that they were “very few,” he told local reporters. “They are in Marawi, but are not allowed to join combat,” he added at the time.

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