MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Unlike many of his slain comrades, the touted new leader of the Islamic State group in the southern Philippines lacks the bravado, clan name or foreign training.
Not much is known about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, but the attacks attributed to him heralding his rise are distinctly savage: A deadly bombing, which authorities say was a suicide attack by a foreign militant couple, blasted through a packed Roman Catholic cathedral in the middle of a Mass.
The January 27 attack, which killed 23 people and wounded about 100 others on southern Jolo Island, and another suspected suicide bombing on nearby Basilan Island last July that officials said he masterminded, put Sawadjaan in the crosshairs of the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism. It also comes at a time when the Islamic State group’s last enclave in eastern Syria is near its imminent downfall, signaling an end to the territorial rule of the self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across much of Syria and Iraq.
A recent U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress said without elaborating that it believed Sawadjaan was the “acting emir,” or leader, in the Philippines of the Islamic State group, also known by its acronym ISIS. It added that no actual leader is confirmed to have been designated by the main ISIS command in the Middle East as of late last year.
Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, however, said intelligence indicated that Sawadjaan, a Jolo-based commander of the brutal Abu Sayyaf extremist group, was installed as ISIS chief in a ceremony last year. Three other extremist groups were recognized as ISIS allies, he said.
Founded in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the decadeslong Muslim separatist rebellion in the south, the Abu Sayyaf lost its commanders early in battle, sending it to a violent path of terrorism and criminality. It has been blacklisted, along with ISIS-linked local groups, as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Now in his 60s, Sawadjaan is a late bloomer in the terrorism underworld.
His turn at the helm came after dozens of commanders, some initially aligned with the al-Qaida movement and later with ISIS, were killed or captured in decades of military offensives. The biggest battle loss came in 2017 when several foreign and local commanders were killed as troops quelled a five-month siege by hundreds of militants in southern Marawi city.
Among those killed was Isnilon Hapilon, a fierce Abu Sayyaf leader, who was the first ISIS-designated leader in the Philippines.
“I think Sawadjaan rose in rank because of seniority and there were no other leaders left. Almost everyone had been wiped out,” said Ano, a former military chief who oversaw the Marawi offensives and now supervises the national police as interior secretary.
Largely confined to Jolo’s poverty-wracked mountain settlements all his life, Sawadjaan was not the well-connected and media-savvy strategist foreign groups would normally ally with to expand their reach. His rise shows how ISIS would latch on desperately to any militant who could provide a sanctuary and armed fighters as its last strongholds crumble in Syria, Ano said.
“For the ISIS to perpetuate their terror actions, they need a base, they need people. That’s the role of Sawadjaan,” Ano told The Associated Press in an interview. He estimated that Sawadjaan commands about 200 combatants and followers.
Sawadjaan was born to a peasant family in predominantly Muslim Jolo and only likely finished grade school. Poverty drove him to work as a lumberjack in the jungles off Patikul town, where he married a woman from Tanum, the mountain village where he would base his Abu Sayyaf faction years later, a military officer, who has closely monitored the Abu Sayyaf, told the AP on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.
As an elderly villager, he served as a local mosque preacher, earning him the religious sobriquet “hatib,” or sermon leader in Arabic, the officer said.
Sawadjaan first took up arms as a member of the Moro National Liberation Front, the largest Muslim secessionist group in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country, which went on to sign a 1996 Muslim autonomy deal with the government, according to the officer.
His commander was Radulan Sahiron, the locally popular one-armed rebel who broke away from the MNLF in 1992. They joined the Abu Sayyaf, which had just been organized by a Libyan-educated local militant, said MNLF leader Yusop Jikiri.
Sawadjaan would later part ways with Sahiron, including over Sahiron’s refusal to accomodate foreign militants for fear they’re a magnet for military airstrikes, said Abu Jihad, a former militant who has met Sawadjaan and was captured by troops. Abu Jihad described Sawadjaan as a folksy village elderly, who constantly lugged an M-16 rifle in his hinterland community but was friendly to visitors.
When fellow militants kidnapped a visiting American Muslim convert, Jeffrey Schilling, for ransom in August 2000, Sawadjaan stayed in the background but helped gather bamboos that were used to build huts for the militants and their hostage, Abu Jihad said.
“He can discuss local issues but didn’t have any wisdom on jihad,” he told AP by phone, referring to the militants’ concept of holy war. “He’s very accommodating. He’s the type who will not be hard to sway.”
Sawadjaan collaborated with diverse outlaws, both Islamic extremists and brigands, Ano said.
He harbored the foreign couple, believed by Philippine officials to be Indonesians, who detonated the bombs in the Jolo cathedral last month, as well as a militant believed to be an Arab known as Abu Kathir al-Maghribi, who died in the van blast that also killed 10 government militiamen and villagers in Basilan last year, Ano added.
A video obtained by police officials showed al-Maghribi in Sawadjaan’s camp last year before the foreign militant reportedly carried out the suicide attack in Basilan. The video was seen by The AP.
His daughter married a Malaysian militant known as Amin Baco, who has ISIS connections. His younger brother, Asman, also belonged to the Abu Sayyaf, according to a confidential police profile of Sawadjaan.
Sawadjaan and his men would later be implicated in the kidnappings of a German couple, two Canadian men, Schilling and a Jordanian journalist, Baker Atyani. Most were ransomed off or escaped but the Canadian men were separately beheaded on video by one of Sawadjaan’s militant nephews, Ben Yadah, according to military and police officials.
In the more than a year of jungle captivity under Sawadjaan’s group starting in June 2012, Atyani got a deep insight into the Abu Sayyaf and the man who sheltered other militants from Indonesia and Malaysia and fostered banditry in the blurry underworld of Islamic extremism in the volatile south. Atyani is believed to have been freed in exchange for ransom.
“It’s all money-driven, it’s not an ideology,” Atyani said. “However, he has sympathy for those who are allegedly fighting for a cause.”