A top al-Qaida-linked militant, long wanted by the US and Philippine authorities for deadly terror attacks, has been killed in a clash with troops in a major blow to his brutal rebel group, the military said today.
Jainal Antel Sali Jr, popularly known as Abu Sulaiman – a top leader of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group – was shot dead yesterday in a fierce gunbattle with army special forces on the mountainous southern island of Jolo, military chief Gen Hermogenes Esperon said, confirming earlier reports of the militant’s death.
Esperon warned Sulaiman’s death could set off retaliatory attacks, but that the military was ready.
Esperon said Sulaiman had plotted most of Abu Sayyaf’s major kidnappings and bombings that victimised Americans and other foreigners.
“We have resolved that this group and their major commanders must be finished off, that this notorious group should see its end,” Esperon told a news conference.
Esperon displayed a picture of the dead militant then triumphantly stood up to scribble an ‘X’ across Sulaiman’s face on a US poster of most-wanted terror suspects.
Sulaiman is the highest-ranking Abu Sayyaf commander killed by US-backed troops, who have been hunting him for years for his alleged involvement in major bomb attacks and mass kidnappings for ransom, he said.
Washington has offered up to £2.5m (€3.8m) for his capture.
Jolo villagers, a rebel informant and one of the wives of the slain rebel have identified his body after the clash between the army’s 8th Special Forces Company and about 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Jolo’s Bud Daho mountain, about 600 miles south of Manila, Esperon said.
Sulaiman allegedly helped plot a February 2004 bombing that triggered a fire aboard Superferry 14, killing 116 people in south-east Asia’s second-worst terror attack. Sulaiman, who has often acted as an Abu Sayyaf spokesman, claimed responsibility.
He also had a hand in a bomb attack that killed a US serviceman near an army camp in southern Zamboanga city in October 2002, he said.
Sulaiman also planned the kidnapping of three Americans and Filipino tourists from the south-western island of Palawan in 2001, according to the military.
One of the Americans, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded. American missionary Gracia Burnham was wounded and rescued by army commandos but her husband, Martin, was killed during the operation that ended their yearlong jungle captivity.
The kidnappings of the Americans prompted Philippine authorities to allow the deployment of US troops in the southern Mindanao region to train and arm Filipino soldiers working to wipe out the resilient Abu Sayyaf.
Army forces raided Sulaiman’s camp yesterday, sparking a three-hour gunbattle through dense forests, leaving two soldiers wounded and apparently killing Sulaiman, said regional army spokesman Maj. Eugene Batara.
Other insurgents escaped but troops are chasing them, Batara said.
He said troops captured Sulaiman’s camp, fortified with 17 bunkers, and found bomb components, leading military officials to believe it has been used as a bomb-making factory.
More than 7,000 troops have been hunting Sulaiman and other militants, including top Indonesian terror suspects Dulmatin and Umar Patek, on Jolo since August 1 in a US-backed campaign called Oplan Ultimatum.
The military believes Sulaiman is one of at least two possible successors to Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani, who was reportedly killed in a Jolo gunbattle in September.
The military has been trying to confirm Janjalani’s death through DNA tests with the help of US authorities, and has yet to announce the results.
Sulaiman, a 41-year-old civil engineer, began his activism by joining the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group that signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.
He broke off from the MNLF when the accord was signed and decided to work in Saudi Arabia for a few years building highways and buildings, according to police intelligence reports.
In the late 1990s, he returned home and joined the Abu Sayyaf.
Having once been a builder, Sulaiman was asked by The AP last year in a telephone interview why he would want to destroy.
Their attacks were retribution for the many atrocities committed against Muslims worldwide, he said. “I know that being once a builder of things would make me more efficient in destroying them,” he said.