POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 10:40 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2012
MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine military said it killed Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorist and two other senior militants Thursday in a U.S.-backed airstrike marking one of the region’s biggest anti-terrorism successes in recent years.
The dawn strike targeting a militant camp on a southern Philippine island killed Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a top leader of the regional, al Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, said military spokesman Col. Marcelo Burgos.
The U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for the capture of Marwan, a U.S.-trained engineer accused of involvement in a number of deadly bombings in the Philippines and in training new militants. A U.S. official confirmed Thursday that the Pentagon had assisted in the strike.
Also killed were the leader of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf militants, Umbra Jumdail, and a Singaporean leader in Jemaah Islamiyah, Abdullah Ali, who used the guerrilla name Muawiyah, Burgos said.
The strike significantly weakens a regional militant network that has relied on the restive southern Philippines — sometimes called Southeast Asia’s Afghanistan — as a hideout, a headquarters for planning bombings and a base for training and recruitment.
Police recovered the bodies of the three militant leaders, and they were “positively identified by police and our intelligence informants at the site,” Burgos told The Associated Press. “What I know is that they will be buried.”
About 30 militants were at the camp near Parang town on Jolo Island, the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf and their allies from the mostly Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah, when it was bombarded by two OV10 aircraft at 3 a.m., regional military commander Maj. Gen. Noel Coballes said.
“Our report is there were at least 15 killed, including their three leadership,” he said. “This is a deliberate, fully planned attack coming from our forces.”
The rest of the militants escaped and no one was captured after the attack, Coballes said.
However, two Philippine security officials with knowledge of the airstrike told the AP that Marwan’s body was not found, contradicting Burgos’ statement. They said it was not clear if it was because of the bombs’ shattering impact on a house where Marwan was believed to be.
They said the body of Jumdail, also known as Dr. Abu Pula, was buried later Thursday. One of the officials said the dead included Jumdail’s son, also an Abu Sayyaf fighter.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
In Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record about the operation, confirmed the Pentagon had aided the strike. He was not specific about the contribution and did not know how many people had been killed in the operation.
American counterterrorism troops have helped ill-equipped Filipino troops track Marwan for years using satellite and drone surveillance. About 600 U.S. special forces troops have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002, providing crucial support for the Philippines’ counterterrorism operations.
Pending confirmation, Marwan’s death represents the most important success against regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah since the January 2011 arrest of Indonesian suspect Umar Patek in Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. commando attack four months later.
Patek and Marwan allegedly collaborated with the Abu Sayyaf in training militants in bomb-making skills, seeking funding locally and abroad and plotting attacks, including against American troops in the southern Philippines.
Patek is believed to have traveled back to Indonesia then onward to Pakistan, leaving Marwan to take charge in the southern Philippines, military officials say.
Thursday’s attack also represents a huge blow to the Abu Sayyaf’s ability to recover from years of battle setbacks through fund raising and training of new militants.
During Thursday’s attack, the Philippine air force dropped four bombs weighing 500 pounds (227 kilograms) each from two bomber planes, said Maj. Gen. Jose Villarete, head of the 3rd Air Division based at an air force base in Zamboanga city.
Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine group, is behind numerous ransom kidnappings, bomb attacks and beheadings that have terrorized the Philippines for more than two decades.
U.S.-backed Philippine offensives have been credited for the capture and killing of hundreds of Abu Sayyaf fighters and most top leaders since the 1990s. Jumdail, also known as Dr. Abu, had eluded troops in numerous offensives and emerged as a key figure in the radical movement.
Most recently, all three of the militant leaders were among the prime suspects in the kidnappings of three Red Cross workers from Switzerland, Italy and the Philippines in 2009. The hostages separately regained their freedom months later, reportedly after ransom payments.
The military estimates the strength of Abu Sayyaf militants at about 400. They are still considered a key threat to regional security.
They are believed to be holding a former Australian soldier who was kidnapped before Christmas as well as a Malaysian, a Japanese and an Indian.
On Wednesday, gunmen in nearby Tawi-Tawi island province snatched Dutch and Swiss tourists and officials said were attempting to move them to Jolo in an impoverished Muslim region 600 miles south of Manila.
Gomez contributed from Bangkok. Associated Press writers Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.