MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine military said Saturday it is checking intelligence reports that a Middle East-educated commander of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group has died after being wounded in an artillery strike in the south.
Brig Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said that if the reported killing of Yassir Igasan in southern Sulu province turns out to be true, it would add to a leadership crisis within the Abu Sayyaf. The brutal group has lost many commanders to combat and surrenders in recent years.
The military received intelligence that Igasan was seriously wounded in the leg by artillery fire in the hinterlands of Sulu's Patikul town in October and then died later, Sobejana said.
Some of Igasan's men, who have surrendered, have told the military that Igasan has not been seen nor appeared in meetings in recent months, said a military intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak about the terrorism issues.
Igasan is one of about half a dozen factional leaders of the Abu Sayyaf but is distinguished because of his connections to Middle East-based militant groups and ability to speak Arabic. Igasan, who was educated either in Libya or Jordan, has been regarded as a candidate to be the next regional leader of the Islamic State group, Philippine security officials say.
The group's previous leader, Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in the final battle in southern Marawi city last year. The city was seized by Islamic State group-linked militants on May 23 and troops quelled the disastrous insurrection after five months.
Emerging in the late 1980s as an offshoot of the decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion in the south, the Abu Sayyaf lost its top commanders early in combat and descended on a bloody path toward terrorism and criminality.
The United States and the Philippines have blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Despite battle setbacks, the small but violent group remains a key security threat.
Two policewomen and a villager were kidnapped in Patikul last weekend by suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen, who have demanded a ransom for their release, police said.