Southeast Asian jihadist leader and bomb expert is alive, in Philippines

Zulkifli bin Hir, a jihadist commander and bomb expert who has worked with three jihadist groups in Southeast Asia and was reported killed by the Philippine military in 2012, is alive and thought to be operating in the southern Philippines.

The deputy chief of Malaysia’s Counter Terrorism Division said that Zulkifli, who is a Malaysian citizen, is alive.

“We are aware of reports that said he was killed a few years ago. That is not true. We believe he is hiding in southern Philippines,” Datuk Ayob Khan told the Malaysian Chronicle on July 3.

Two years ago, the Philippine Air Force asserted that Zulkifli and 14 other jihadists, including Umbra Jumdail, a senior Abu Sayyaf commander, were killed in an airstrike that targeted a camp in the village of Duyan Kabaw in Parang in the southern province of Sulu on Feb. 2, 2012.

“I am sure because I will not easily issue a statement here,” Chief of Staff General Jessie Dellosa, the Philippines’ top military commander, confidently said in a press briefing the day of the strike. “We have intelligence people and locals in the area.”

But the military never recovered Zulkifli’s body.

One indication that Zulkifli survived the strike is that the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program never removed him from its list of wanted terrorists. A $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and conviction remains in place.

Zulkifli is the second jihadist leader from Southeast Asia to have surfaced after being thought killed in a counterterrorism operation. Abdul Basit Usman, an Abu Sayyaf Group operative and master bombmaker, was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan in 2010. But he has recently been spotted in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

Zulkifli bin Hir, a.k.a. Zulkifli Abdhir, who goes by a number of aliases, including “Marwan,” is “an engineer trained in the United States” and “is thought to be the head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) terrorist organization and a member of Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command,” according to Rewards for Justice. He is said to have been sheltering in the Philippines since 2003 and has served as a bomb maker for the Abu Sayyaf Group. All three groups — KMM, Jemaah Islamiyah, and Abu Sayyaf — are linked to al Qaeda.

Zulkifli is thought to be sheltering with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a Muslim insurgent group in the southern Philippines that broke off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Members of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, and the KMM routinely shelter with and operate alongside other Muslim insurgent groups in the southern Philippines.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is an Islamist terrorist group that seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state across Southeast Asia. While it is most active in Indonesia and the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah also conducts operations in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The terror group is al Qaeda’s regional affiliate in Southeast Asia, and its operatives have been responsible for devastating attacks in the region, including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the 2004 suicide car bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the August 2003 car bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and a series of bombings in Manila.

Jemaah Islamiyah has suffered major setbacks inside Indonesia, with many of its top leaders killed or captured over the past several years. Among them are Dulmatin, a top leader and military commander (killed in 2010); and Noordin Mohammed Top, a senior leader, recruiter, strategist, and fundraiser (killed in 2009). Umar Patek, a top JI leader, was captured in March 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just months before al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden was killed in the same city in a US special operations raid. Abu Bakir Bashir, the terror group’s founder, is currently in prison for founding, financing, and supporting al Qaeda in Aceh.

The Abu Sayyaf Group is a Philippines-based terrorist and criminal gang formed by fighters who returned from the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. The group was funded and financed by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-laws, according to Khaddafy Janjalani, the leader of Abu Sayyaf before his death in September 2006. Khalifa, an al Qaeda financier and facilitator, was killed by US special operations forces in Madagascar in January 2007.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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