By Sara Gómez Armas
Manila, Aug 28 (efe-epa).- A bomb expert, radical and elusive, baby-faced Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, with increasing responsibility in the militant group Abu Sayyaf, was the mastermind of Monday’s twin suicide attack in Jolo in southern Philippines, which caused the death of 15 people and left 75 injured.
The attack was carried out by the widows of two militants of Abu Sayyaf, an organization linked to the Islamic State (IS) that has taken refugee in the remote and troubled Sulu province.
The group is believed to be behind the recent suicide bombings in the Philippines during the last few years.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s on the neighboring island of Basilan by veterans of the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union and gained international notoriety for attacks and kidnappings targeting foreigners although they have been radicalized since they swore allegiance to IS in 2014.
The joint investigation by the army and police in Sulu confirms that the mastermind of Monday’s attack was Mundi Sawadjaan, who also engineered an attack – one of the worst in the country in recent years – during Sunday Mass at the Jolo cathedral in January 2019, in which 23 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.
Mundi is the nephew of the leader of Abu Sayyaf, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who, according to US and Philippines intelligence, is the new emir of IS in Southeast Asia, although there was no official appointment.
“Mundi is probably Abu Sayyaf’s leading specialist in making explosives and planning attacks right now,” Carlos Igualada, head of the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies, told EFE.
According to Igualada, Mundi “has been gaining prominence and significant responsibility within Abu Sayyaf” ever since his uncle took over the leadership.
Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, a specialist in Asian militant Islamist groups, spent 18 months as Abu Sayyaf’s hostage in the Sulu jungle and remembers among his kidnappers in June 2012 a young Mundi, who made “several attempts to scare me by firing near my head and legs during my ordeal.”
“He should be now around 25-27 years old. He is one of the seasoned members in the organization, trained in explosives by Abu Rami, a top leader who died in combat in 2017,” added Atyani, who managed to escape from the jungle in Sulu, where he had traveled to interview then-Abu Sayyaf chief, Isnilon Hapilon, who died in October 2017 in the Battle of Marawi.
For weeks, Philippine authorities have been trying to verify whether Hatib Sawadjaan was killed in clashes with army troops on July 6 in Patikul, a jungle area of Sulu where some 200 Abu Sayyaf troops are believed to be hiding under his command.
“Our troops keep searching for the body,” Army Chief Cirilito Sobejana told the media this week.
Sobejana said he was 90 percent convinced that Hatib is dead although he will remain 10 percent doubtful until his mortal remains show up.
Therefore, the Philippine armed forces do not rule out that the latest attack was a retaliation by Mundi for the possible death of his uncle and leader of Abu Sayyaf, a post that now may be vacant and available to the nephew.
However, the director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, Rommel Banlaoi, told EFE that information on Hatib’s death is “very confusing” and that there are “indications” that he is still alive and active in Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf is taking advantage of the army’s focus on responding to the COVID-19 epidemic to “strengthen and rearm.”
“It seems like Mundi is acting as a deputy leader while he is uncle is convalescent since July. But his only strength is being his nephew,” Banlaoi added.
“If its true that Hatib died, Mundi is likely to be one of the candidates to lead the organization. It will be difficult to know for sure, because after the death of Isnilon Hapilon, there were several names that appeared as possible successors but it was quite a while before it was known for sure who replaced him,” Igualada said.
The advances in the investigation show that Monday’s twin attacks were carried out by two women: Nanah, widow of Normal Lasuca, the first Philippine suicide bomber responsible for the June 2019 attack on the city of Indanan, also in Sulu province, and Inda Nay, the wife of Abu Talha, who acted as the liaison between Abu Sayyaf and the IS leadership until his death last year.
Military intelligence has been tracking these women and Mundi for months, on suspicion of preparing a suicide attack, although the death of four officials in June in a mistaken encounter with the Sulu police – who probably had links with Abu Sayyaf – threw them off track.