KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's most wanted terrorist, Mahmud Ahmad, was among key militant leaders involved in plotting the deadly offensive on Marawi City, a New Straits Times (NST) report said, citing foreign intelligence sources.
The university lecturer-turned-militant, who is highly regarded by fighters battling government security forces in the southern Philippines, had assumed a leadership role among militants in the region with links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to the sources.
A video clip that is being circulated shows Mahmud sitting with a group that included Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute.
The two brothers led hundreds of Muslim insurgents in the attack on Marawi on May 23 after government forces botched a raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, head of the South-east Asia wing of ISIS.
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In the video, Hapilon, who has a US$5 million (S$6.9 million) bounty on his head, is shown listening intently as Abdullah briefs the group. Hapilon does not appear to be injured, as has been suggested in recent media reports.
Sitting across from Hapilon is Mahmud, a former Universiti Malaya (UM) lecturer responsible for recruiting Malaysians to become ISIS members. Media reports have suggested that he could succeed Hapilon should anything happen to the latter.
While Hapilon is on the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted list, Mahmud has largely managed to stay under the radar.
In the video, Abdullah mainly addresses Mahmud in Maranao, a local dialect. Mahmud responds using the same dialect.
Mahmud also appears more chiselled than in the mugshots released by police after he escaped a dragnet to join the Abu Sayyaf group, the NST report said yesterday.
In the video, he interjects several times with questions on plans to attack Mindanao State University in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province. Another target was Butig, a former training base for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines' largest Muslim secessionist group.
"Among the group led by Hapilon, Mahmud is a well-respected leader," one of the intelligence sources told the NST.
"His military training experience at the Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, aside from the fact that he has a strong Islamic background, including as a lecturer, has earned him respect from militants in the area."
Aside from Mahmud, at least four other Malaysians are known to have become fighters in the Philippines, NST said. One of them was Mohd Najib Husen, who ran a stationery shop in UM and later became Mahmud's right-hand man.
He fled to the Philippines with Mahmud and was reportedly killed in a shoot-out with government troops in 2015.