Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan

Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was the U.S.-designated emir (leader) of ISIS in the Philippines and a Sulu-based commander of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).“Terrorist Designations under Amended Executive Order to Modernize Sanctions to Combat Terrorism,” U.S. Department of State, September 10, 2019, https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designations-under-amended-executive-order-to-modernize-sanctions-to-combat-terrorism/. He was connected to several hostage executions and, according to Philippine police, planned and financed the January 2019 cathedral attack in Jolo that killed at least 23 people.Associated Press, “5 militants linked to deadly church bombing surrender in the Philippines,” South China Morning Post, February 4, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2185012/5-militants-linked-deadly-church-bombing-surrender. In August 2020, the then Philippine army commanding general claimed that Sawadjaan had likely died following clashes with government forces in July 2020.Ellie Aben, “Philippine military says Abu Sayyaf leader still alive,” Arab News, July 11, 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1702951/world; Jim Gomez, “Army chief: Militant leader likely killed in Philippines,” Associated Press, August 25, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/international-news-islamic-state-group-asia-pacific-d4595e2a569618d3f7abb3dd10aa30f7.

A native of Jolo island in Sulu province, Sawadjaan served as a preacher at a local mosque, where he earned the name hatib, or sermon leader in Arabic. Sawadjaan began his militant career with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), though it is unclear when he joined.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c. In 1992, he left the group alongside Radulan Sahiron and the two joined the nascent ASG.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c. Sawadjaan had been active in the Sulu-based faction of ASG under leader Radulan Sahiron, but he reportedly split from Sahiron over the latter’s disinterest in integrating foreign militants.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c.

Sawadjaan was believed to have harbored foreign terrorists and Islamist extremists, including the Indonesian couple that carried out the January 2019 cathedral bombing in Jolo.Jimmy Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c. On January 27, 2019, the two Indonesians detonated their explosives during Sunday mass at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral, killing at least 23 worshippers and injuring 100 others. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack online.Richard C. Paddock and Jason Gutierrez, “Indonesian Couple Carried Out Philippines Cathedral Bombing, Police Say,” New York Times, July 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/23/world/asia/philippines-bombing-deportees-isis.html. Some Philippine security authorities initially blamed the attack on Ajang-Ajang, a cell under the command of Sawadjaan.Michael Hart, “Abu Sayyaf Is Bringing More of ISIS’ Brutal Tactics to the Philippines,” World Politics Review, July 22, 2019, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28054/abu-sayyaf-is-bringing-more-of-isis-brutal-tactics-to-the-philippines. The group, which had focused on kidnap-for-ransom activity, is comprised of a younger generation of members who are brothers and sons of deceased ASG members.Martin Petty, “Who is behind the Philippine church bombings?” Reuters, January 28, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/philippines-security/who-is-behind-the-philippine-church-bombings-idINKCN1PM0H6. Sawadjaan was also linked to a number of high-profile kidnappings and executions, including the beheadings of two Canadians in 2016.Associated Press, “5 militants linked to deadly church bombing surrender in the Philippines,” South China Morning Post, February 4, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2185012/5-militants-linked-deadly-church-bombing-surrender.

In a March 2020 report to the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) reported that a council of ASG leaders appointed Sawadjaan as “overall emir” of ISIS in the Philippines in May 2018.“Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress,” U.S. Department of Defense, May 12, 2020, 12, https://www.stateoig.gov/system/files/opep_q2_mar2020_gold_508.pdf. In February 2019, the Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed that Sawadjaan had taken over as leader of ISIS in the Philippines after its former leader Abu Dar suffered heavy losses due to military crackdowns.Rambo Talabong, “Jolo bombing 'mastermind' Sawadjaan is new ISIS head in PH – Año,” Rappler, February 6, 2019, https://rappler.com/nation/ano-says-jolo-bombing-mastermind-sawadjaan-new-isis-head-philippines. Abu Dar was a former lieutenant of Isnilon Hapilon and took over as leader of ISIS in the Philippines, following Hapilon’s death in October 2017. Hapilon was killed in battle against Philippine government forces, which brought an end to a five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-linked fighters.Bobby Lagsa, “Airstrikes, clashes between military, ISIS-Maute group in Lanao del Sur towns,” Rappler, June 17, 2018, https://rappler.com/nation/military-operations-abu-dar-tubawan-pagawayan-lanao-del-sur.

Due to sustained counterterrorism campaigns by the Philippine government, ASG suffered a loss of leadership in the early 2000s.Zack Fellman, “Abu Sayyaf Group,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2011, http://csis.org/files/publication/111128_Fellman_ASG_AQAMCaseStudy5.pdf. Since then, ASG has largely split into Basilan-based and Sulu-based factions, but even more discrete groups have emerged in recent years based on their support for ISIS.“Stopping Abu Sayyaf Kidnappings: An Indonesian-Malaysian Case Study,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, March 27, 2020, 7-8, http://www.understandingconflict.org/en/conflict/read/88/Stopping-Abu-Sayyaf-Kidnappings-An-Indonesian-Malaysian-Case-Study. Most pro-ISIS groups recognized Sawadjaan as their leader under the umbrella of ISIS in the Philippines.Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Terrorism In The Philippines During The Pandemic: Persistent Threats Three Years After Marawi Siege – Analysis,” Eurasia Review, May 15, 2020, https://www.eurasiareview.com/15052020-terrorism-in-the-philippines-during-the-pandemic-persistent-threats-three-years-after-marawi-siege-analysis/. Despite Sawadjaan’s leadership position at the time, however, most ISIS-aligned groups in the Philippines appear to operate independently of each other.“Operation Pacific Eagle – Philippines: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress,” U.S. Department of Defense, May 12, 2020, 3, https://www.stateoig.gov/system/files/opep_q2_mar2020_gold_508.pdf.

Sawadjaan reportedly controlled between five or six sub-groups within ASG, consisting of a total of approximately 100 fighters, according to a September 2018 estimate.“The Philippines: Militancy and the New Bangsamoro,” International Crisis Group, June 27, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/philippines/301-philippines-militancy-and-new-bangsamoro. However, February 2019 estimates put the number of people under his command at 200.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c. Philippine authorities were concerned that Sawadjaan’s apparent singular leadership could encourage ISIS militants and sympathizers within the Philippines and abroad to gather under his umbrella or send him funding.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c.

Several of Sawadjaan’s family members have also been linked to terrorist groups operating in the region. Sawadjaan’s younger brother Jul Asman Sawadjaan, who died of illness in 2014, was an ASG member and commander.Julie S. Alipala, “5 Abu Sayyaf bandits, 2 soldiers killed in fresh fighting in Sulu,” Inquirer (Mindanao), February 25, 2015, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/675333/5-abu-sayyaf-bandits-2-soldiers-killed-in-fresh-fighting-in-sulu. The younger Sawadjaan was known for holding Jordanian television journalist Baker Atyani hostage for a year and a half. Sawadjaan’s nephew Nanz Sawadjaan was also a key member of ASG, who was killed in a gun battle with Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in September 2019.“Nephew of pro-ISIS Abu Sayyaf leader killed in Sulu – military,” Rappler, September 11, 2019, https://rappler.com/nation/military-says-nephew-pro-isis-abu-sayyaf-leader-killed-sulu. Another nephew, Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, is a suspected unit leader and bombmaker of ASG operating in the Sulu province of southern Philippines.Rambo Talabong, “Mundi Sawadjaan behind Jolo twin bombings, military says,” Rappler, August 27, 2020, https://www.rappler.com/nation/military-report-person-behind-jolo-bombings. Sawadjaan’s son-in-law is a Malaysian militant, known as Amin Baco, with reported connections to ISIS.Jim Gomez, “Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/730b6ee409364975817a82ad9f15d90c.

On July 9, 2020, Philippine security forces announced they were investigating local news reports that Sawadjaan was killed in clashes with government forces.“Philippine police checking reports of Abu Sayyaf leader’s death,” Arab News, July 9, 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1702386/world. Philippine media claimed Sawadjaan succumbed to gunshot wounds sustained during a battle between 40 ASG militants and Army Scout Rangers in Patikul, Sulu on July 6. On July 11, the spokesman of Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), the AFP’s operation in the region, confirmed that Sawadjaan was injured, but still alive.Ellie Aben, “Philippine military says Abu Sayyaf leader still alive,” Arab News, July 11, 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1702951/world. However, in August 2020, the Philippine army’s commanding general at the time, Cirilito Sobejana, believed that Sawadjaan had likely died of his wounds. He claimed to have received details about Sawadjaan’s death and burial from recently captured ASG members. Sobejana also believed that suicide bombings in Jolo on August 24 were in response to Sawadjaan’s killing. Philippine troops have yet to recover Sawadjaan’s remains for confirmation.Jim Gomez, “Army chief: Militant leader likely killed in Philippines,” Associated Press, August 25, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/international-news-islamic-state-group-asia-pacific-d4595e2a569618d3f7abb3dd10aa30f7.

United States

The U.S. Department of State designated “Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan” as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order “Modernizing Sanctions to Combat Terrorism” on September 20, 2019.“Terrorist Designations under Amended Executive Order to Modernize Sanctions to Combat Terrorism,” U.S. Department of State, September 10, 2019, https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designations-under-amended-executive-order-to-modernize-sanctions-to-combat-terrorism/.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added “Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan” to the Specially Designated Nationals List on September 20, 2019.“Executive Order Amending Counter Terrorism Sanctions Authorities; Counter Terrorism Designations and Designations Updates; Iran-related Designation; Syria Designations Updates,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 10, 2019, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20190910.aspx.

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