Mudzrimar ‘Mundi’ Sawadjaan: A Post-Mortem of Abu Sayyaf’s Most Wanted Militant

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 12

An image of Mudzrimar ‘Mundi’ Sawadjaan. (Source: Rappler)

Executive Summary

  •  Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan was killed in December 2023, dealing another major blow to Abu Sayyaf’s struggling leadership. His elimination removes one of the few individuals who might have had the ability to inspire the group to regain its former strength.
  • Mundi was the mastermind behind the sophisticated 2020 Jolo bombings, and led a 2022 kidnapping in Malaysia before Philippine forces killed him while he was fleeing Basilan Island.

Twin suicide blasts near a church in Jolo in 2020 remain etched in the memories of Philippine citizens, especially those who live in Mindanao. The attacks killed 14 people and were carried out by two female suicide bombers. One of these individuals was the widowed Indonesian wife of a Filipino Abu Sayyaf member, himself the first Filipino suicide bomber, who attacked a military base in Sulu in 2019. The two-part suicide bombing also demonstrated an unusual level of sophistication, with the second blast occurring a few minutes after the first, just after emergency rescue teams had arrived (Al Jazeera, August 25, 2020).

Several months after the Jolo suicide bombings, the operation’s mastermind, Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, became known to the public. This occurred when another Indonesian wife of an Abu Sayyaf member was arrested and revealed additional details about the Jolo suicide bombings, including Mundi’s role (Minda News, December 3). It had previously been believed that Mundi was killed not long after the suicide bombings in May 2021, but less than one year later the Philippine Western Mindanao Command (WESTMINCOM) acknowledged that he was still alive (The Star [Malaysia], January 30, 2022).

WESTMINCOM placed Mundi on a “most wanted” list in early 2022 right after a kidnapping occurred in Sabah, Malaysia, which Mundi allegedly masterminded. This brought his name to the fore again (astro AWANI, January 30, 2022). Mundi managed to evade being captured or killed in a Philippine army operation in April 2021. While Mundi escaped, the military succeeded in killing two of his nephews, including the leader of the pro-Islamic State (IS) faction within Abu Sayyaf, Hatib Hajan (Benar News, April 23, 2021). The prospect that Mundi would eventually be killed was made more likely when his own brother, Mujafal “Jhapz” Sawadjaan, was also reportedly killed in Sulu in that same month (Rappler, April 21, 2021). After this, Mundi appeared on Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command’s (Esscom) most wanted terrorist list, while also still being wanted in the Philippines (The Star [Malaysia], January 30, 2022).

By December 2023, Mundi was on the run and had been unable to carry out any major attacks since the 2022 kidnapping in Sabah. A special intelligence operation was carried out by Philippine security forces in Basilan to capture or kill Mundi while he was attempting to flee the island (The Star [Malaysia], December 3, 2023). It was successful, and Mundi was eliminated. The Philippine military forces subsequently used his killing to send a message to any remaining Abu Sayyaf fighters, encouraging them to take advantage of the military’s amnesty program—or else face the same fate as Mundi (GMA News, December 3, 2023). Whether or not Abu Sayyaf loses more fighters to the amnesty program or further counter-terrorism operations, it remains a group that is struggling to survive. The death of Mundi will only further damage Abu Sayyaf’s core leadership. Beyond this, Mundi’s death makes it less likely that anyone can inspire the group to regain the strength and influence it had at its peak, before Abu Sayyaf’s defeat at the hands of the Philippine military during the siege of Marawi in 2017.