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Shepherd of wolves

He is now the recognized leader of IS here in the country. That’s why Sawadjaan’s camp is used as the holding and training area of suicide bombers.

Mario J. Mallari

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Shadowy terror leader Sawadjaan.

Home-grown terrorist Hadjan Sawadjaan has levelled up the brand of extremism in the southern Philippines after unleashing suicide bombers, locals and foreigners alike, raising much concern from government security forces.

Sawadjaan, who is touted as the new Islamic State (IS) emir or leader in the southern Philippines, is tagged as the one who handled the five suicide bombers in Sulu — three of whom already launched attacks in Indanan, Sulu.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed to the Daily Tribune that Sawadjaan was the first Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader to form and unleash a group of suicide bombers with mixed nationalities.

Año, who was a respected intelligence officer before becoming chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), also tagged the terrorist as the current leader of IS in the Philippines.
“Yes, that’s right. He is the first,” Año replied when asked by the Daily Tribune if he was the first Abu Sayyaf commander to assemble a sort of suicide bombing team.

“Sawadjaan is now the recognized leader of IS here in the country. That’s why his camp is used as the holding and training area of suicide bombers both foreigners and locals,” he added.

Imported terror

The military tagged Sawadjaan’s group as being behind Sunday’s suicide bombing staged by a Caucasian-looking woman at a detachment of the Army’s 35th Infantry battalion (IB) in Barangay Tagbak. Fortunately, the bomber was the lone fatality.

That was the third suicide bomber from his group — the first two were the 28 June blasts staged by Norman Lasuca and an unidentified companion in Barangay Kajatian, killing eight people, including the two suicide bombers and wounding 22 others.

Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), has said the military learned of the five alleged suicide bombers assembled by Sawadjaan following the 28 June attack launched by Lasuca, the first confirmed Filipino suicide bomber.

He said Sawadjaan’s suicide team was tasked to conduct attacks in Western Mindanao.

With the five alleged suicide bombers unleashed by Sawadjaan, two more are unaccounted for — which could be considered as walking time bombs.

The deadly suicide bombing by an Indonesian couple at the Jolo Cathedral last January was also blamed to Sawadjaan. The attack killed 23 people and wounded more than 100 others.

He was also tagged as coddler of the Moroccan suicide bomber in Lamitan, Basilan in July 2018.

Home-grown radical

Sawadjaan was born to a peasant family in Sulu’s capital Jolo, a predominantly Muslim town and likely finished only grade school. Poverty drove him to work as a lumberjack in the jungles in nearby Patikul where he married a native from Tanum, the mountain village where he would base his Abu Sayyaf faction.

Compared to other Abu Sayyaf leaders, current and those who perished in battle, he could be considered as a home-grown extremist — having no confirmed exploits or even education abroad.

In Sulu, there are two known ASG leaders, Sawadjaan and his former commander Radullan Sahiron, who has been tagged in high-profile banditry since the late 1990s when the group gained notoriety for high-profile kidnapping incidents.

A former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Sawadjaan has no record of going abroad, either to gain Islamic education or to fight as mujahideen unlike other ASG leaders.

In fact, he is not considered an ustadz or an Islamic teacher, but a mere hatib or one who leads the sermons during activities at mosque.

ASG founding leader Abdurajak Janjalani has a very wide exposure outside the Philippines either as an Islamic student or mujahideen in Afghanistan. Janjalani was among the Filipino Muslims who got “lucky” to go to Saudi Arabia for school. He furthered his studies of Islam in Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Iran for his “education” in the 1980s. Eventually, he became an ustadz in various mosques in Basilan.

Terror scholars

In 1988, based on various accounts, Janjalani went to Pakistan to study the Islamic Revolution in Iran. During this period, he was said to have been attracted to the concept of “jihad.”
He was radicalized after his stint aboard but never managed to unleash suicide bombers until his death in the 1990s.

Isnilon Hapilon, the fierce Abu Sayyaf leader who emerged as IS emir in Southeast Asia before the 2017 Marawi City siege, is of the same level. He was exposed as an Islamic student and eventually as mujahideen abroad.

Unlike Janjalani and Hapilon who are well-connected with Islamic militants abroad, Sawadjaan never had an established link with international terrorists.

Despite their international exploits, Janjalani and Hapilon failed to unleash suicide bombers during their reign — a feat only the homegrown Sawadjaan has achieved as terror leader.

With Francis T. Wakefield

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