MANILA: 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 Jan 27 attack, which killed 23 people and wounded 100 others on 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 US-led global campaign against terrorism.
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 IS chief in a ceremony last year.
Three other extremist groups were recognised as IS allies, he said.
Founded in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the decades-long 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 IS-linked local groups, as a terrorist organisation 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 al-Qaeda and later with IS, 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 IS-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 IS would latch on desperately to any militant who could provide a sanctuary and armed fighters as its last strongholds crumble in Syria, Ano said.
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, said 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 (MNLF), 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 organised 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 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 bamboo that was 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 holy war,” he said by phone. “He’s very accommodating. He’s the type who will not be hard to sway.” — AP