From Village Elder to Islamic State’s ‘Acting’ Emir in the Philippines: Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 7

On July 10, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) announced that Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the leader of a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) based in the Sulu Islands and acting emir of the Islamic State in East Asia (ISEA), was still alive and active. The statement, delivered by AFP Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Cirilo Sobejana, comes following initial reports that Sawadjaan was killed in a 30-minute-long firefight between ASG and Army Scout Rangers on Sulu Island (Manila Bulletin, July 10; Arab News, July 11). Sawadjaan is a long-time militant who has been operating in the Philippines for decades.

Sawadjaan is believed to have been born in Jolo, the capital of Sulu, to a poor family. He was originally employed as a lumberjack near the town of Patikul, a town from where he is still operating today. As a village elder, he later served as a preacher at the local mosque, where he earned the title of hatib, or sermon leader. Sawadjaan later joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Sawadjaan’s left the MNLF with his then-commander, Radulan Sahiron, to join ASG in 1992 (Sunstar, February 22, 2019).

He began gaining notoriety in the early 2000s for his participation in the kidnapping of foreign nationals for ransom. This is a practice that ASG has historically relied upon for funding. Sawadjaan was involved in the kidnapping of an American citizen, Jeffrey Schilling in 2000. More famously, Sawadjaan’s forces kidnapped a Norwegian, Filipino, and two Canadian nationals, from a resort in the southern Philippines on September 21, 2015. ASG beheaded the two Canadians were beheaded in April and June 2016, citing a lack of timely payment on the ransom (Al Jazeera, September 17, 2016).

Sawadjaan’s advancement in ASG and Islamic State came as a result of the Battle of Marawi, which ended in October 2017. The five-month-long battle between the AFP and Islamic State affiliated militant groups—including ASG and other factions of local Islamist groups, including the Maute group, Ansar Khalifa Philippines, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters—killed many of the organization’s senior leaders. This included Islamic States-Central’s (IS-Central) anointed emir for the regional affiliate, Isnilon Hapilon. Abu Dar, an ASG leader who survived the Marawi battle, is believed to have taken over Hapilon’s leadership position, before being killed himself in a gunfight with AFP on March 14, 2019 (Straits Times, April 14, 2019; see MLM, July 31, 2019). Abu Dar was the last of the leading organizers of the take-over of Marawi to be killed (Straits Times, March 16, 2019).

Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Eduardo Año, remarked that, “I think Sawadjaan rose in rank because of seniority and there were no other leaders left. Almost everyone had been wiped out” (Sunstar, February 22, 2019). Abu Dar had experience as a money courier with a proven ability to bring in foreign fighters to Marawi. Sawadjaan has also proven that he has connections to militant networks in Malaysia and Indonesia. His daughter is married to Amin Baco, a Malaysian militant leader who survived the fighting in Marawi and is influential among the Islamic State affiliated militant groups in the region (SCMP, January 17, 2018).

Año further commented that Sawadjaan also likely rose to his leadership position since he commands a force of approximately 200 fighters, and has a geographic base in Patikul, Sulu from which to operate (Sunstar, February 22, 2019).

IS-Central has not officially appointed Sawadjaan as emir of ISEA. However, a U.S. Department of Defense report has labelled Sawadjaan as the ‘acting emir’ (Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines Report, June 30, 2019). Filipino intelligence sources say that Sawadjaan had been recognized as the emir by IS-Central sometime in 2018, but no official announcement has been released by IS media groups confirming this (Efe Agencia, February 7, 2019).

More recently, Sawadjaan was involved in planning two significant attacks that took place in Sulu in 2019. A double suicide bombing took place in a cathedral in Jolo, Sulu on January 27, 2019 killed 23 people, wounding 109. The Indonesian couple responsible for the bombing reportedly stayed with Sawadjaan’s ASG faction in Sulu, and the AFP labelled him as the “mastermind and financier” of the attack (Rappler, July 23, 2019). On June 28, 2019, another pair of suicide bombers targeted an army counterterrorism unit brigade in the town of Indanan, killing eight and injuring 22. This was the first case of a Filipino national conducting a suicide bombing (Arab News, July 11).

According to Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College and specialist in Southeast Asian security issues, the key connection between the local ASG and IS is Sawadjaan (see MLM, July 31, 2019). Both the Jolo Cathedral bombing and the attack in Indanan were claimed by Islamic State, and were perpetrated by local ASG militants.

Sawadjaan’s forces have continued its low-intensity insurgency in Sulu since these bombings. On April 22, a nearly hour-long fight between ISEA-linked ASG militants and AFP forces near Patikul, Sulu resulted in the death of 11 Filipino soldiers and six militants. These militants were part of Sawadjaan’s faction and it is unknown if he took part in the skirmish or not; however, it is quite likely he played a role, or helped coordinate the planning for the attack (Benar News, April 23).

The most recent gunfight that resulted in the mistaken reporting of Sawadjaan’s death also took place in Patikul. Five militants were killed in the fight, and initial reporting indicated that Sawadjaan was buried by his fighters and nephew, Mundi Sawadjaan. However, he remains “very active” according to the AFP, although he is likely to have been injured in the fight (Arab News, July 11). Since this clash, Sawadjaan’s forces were allegedly responsible for an ambush on an AFP battalion near Patikul on July 31, resulting in the deaths of three soldiers and six militants (Benar News, July 31).

Sawadjaan has seemingly filled a leadership vacuum created by the death of senior leadership during the Battle of Marawi and in subsequent operations. He has been involved in insurgent fighting for decades, and has a proven reach into Indonesia and Malaysia, from where he has recruited fighters and brought them to Sulu for training. Had Sawadjaan been killed, it would have been disruptive to the operations of ISEA. His survival means that he can bring his extensive experience and regional connections to bear in continuing the Islamist insurgency in the Philippines. Sawadjaan will likely continue to recruit foreign fighters, and organize and perpetuate kidnappings for ransom, which has seen an uptick since 2018, and plan attacks against the AFP, the Filipino government, and other institutions (Benar News, July 29).