A top Malaysian terrorist with substantial combat experience in the war-torn southern Philippine island of Mindanao could be the new "emir" of the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia, according to security chiefs here.
Sabahan Mohammad Amin Baco, 31, replaced Isnilon Hapilon, 51, a Filipino, who was killed as the five-month-long conflict between Philippine troops and Muslim militants for Marawi city in Mindanao, drew to a close last month, Philippine National Police (PNP) director-general Ronald de la Rosa told reporters yesterday.
"We have received reports that Amin Baco has assumed responsibility as the new emir of the remaining group there (in Marawi), not only for the stragglers there but also for the entire South-east Asia," said Mr de la Rosa.
Baco was among hundreds of extremists from outside the Philippines who joined a rebel alliance that stormed Marawi on May 23 and held parts of the city for five months, creating the Philippines' biggest security crisis in decades.
The army terminated combat operations two weeks ago, but continued to battle dozens of "stragglers".
Other security officials, however, said Baco might already be dead. Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez said at a separate briefing that Baco and one of Hapilon's sons, Abdullah, could have been among nine militants killed by security forces on Sunday in a still unsecured part of Marawi.
"We have some suspicion that they are already dead… There are body counts there in the area where they are hiding, and we believe, hopefully, Amin Baco is one of them," he said.
In a statement, the military's spokesman, Lieutenant-General Restituto Padilla, also said Baco "is believed to have been among those killed in Marawi recently".
We have received reports that Amin Baco has assumed responsibility as the new emir of the remaining group there (in Marawi), not only for the stragglers there but also for the entire South-east Asia.
MR RONALD DE LA ROSA, director-general of the Philippine National Police, about the Malaysian terrorist who replaced Isnilon Hapilon after the Filipino was killed in the battle for Marawi city in Mindanao.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, meanwhile, said without proof of his death, Baco was still a wanted man.
But he downplayed the threat that Baco posed, especially as Muslim militants were now scattered following their losses in Marawi.
"I don't think he can mass the same number of troops that Hapilon did in Marawi," said Mr Lorenzana.
He described Baco as a "middle-level" leader.
But PNP deputy director-general Rolando Mendez said Baco is "one of the most experienced terrorists" in the Philippines, plotting attacks and providing combat training to local militants for years.
Baco was an operative of the Malaysia-based terror group Jemaah Islamiah.
Intelligence sources said he was trained by fellow Malaysian Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, who was one of the world's most wanted terrorists when he was killed in a police raid two years ago.
Baco was staying near Marwan's remote hideout in Mamasapano town, in Mindanao, during the raid, but he eluded arrest, said Mr Mendez.
Security expert Rommel Banlaoi said Baco presents a bigger threat than Hapilon or Mahmud Ahmad, a former Malaysian university lecturer who was Hapilon's No. 2 man but was also killed in Marawi.
Mahmud was regarded more as an ideologue and organiser than a battlefield commander.
Baco, on the other hand, has had years of experience in fighting a guerilla war. He is also adept at making bombs - knowledge that he has passed on to many recruits.