ZAMBOANGA CITY, 18 January 2007 — A senior Abu Sayyaf leader wanted by the United States for the kidnapping and killing of two American citizens had been killed by Filipino troops in a clash on Tuesday on the southern Philippine island of Jolo, a security spokesman told Arab News.
Army Maj. Eugene Batara, spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga City, said troops recovered the body of Jainal Antel Sali, Jr. alias Abu Solaiman.
Sali, 41, a native of Basilan island, acted as spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf until his death. “He is dead. Abu Solaiman is killed in the fighting. His death is a big blow to the Abu Sayyaf,” Batara said at dawn yesterday. Sali 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. Washington has offered up to $5 million 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 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila.
At a press conference in Manila, Philippine military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said Abu Solaiman had plotted most of Abu Sayyaf’s major kidnappings and bombings that victimized 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 said. Esperon displayed a picture of the slain militant then triumphantly stood up to scribble an ‘X’ across Abu Solaiman’s face on a US poster of most-wanted terror suspects.
Sali was included in the US list of most wanted Abu Sayyaf terror leaders and had been implicated in the kidnappings and killings of California native Guillermo Sobero in 2001 and Kansas missionary Martin Burnham in 2002.
Martin’s wife Gracia Burnham was rescued in 2002 by US-led Filipino soldiers after a firefight in Zamboanga del Norte province.
He was also linked to the kidnapping of US citizen Jeffrey Craig Schilling in 2000 in Jolo Island. Schilling was held hostage for more than seven months by the Abu Sayyaf and during his captivity, some of the demands made by the Abu Sayyaf were the release of international terrorist Ramsey Yousef and the blind Muslim cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman from a US prison, the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East and the payment of $10 million in ransom.
Schilling eventually managed to escape from captivity on April 12, 2001.
A US government dossier on Sali said he had planned and perpetrated several brutal acts of terrorism involving kidnapping US and foreign nationals and bombing civilian targets. In April 2004, Sali helped supervise members of the Abu Sayyaf’s Urban Terror Group for planned bombing activities. Filipino authorities filed charges against Sali and two other leaders for their involvement in a series of bombings in October 2002 in Zamboanga City that killed at least a dozen Filipino civilians, an American soldier and wounding more than 200 others.
Sali also headed the unit responsible for the Oct. 17, 2002, bombings of two department stores in Zamboanga City. He also planned the May 2001 Dos Palmas resort kidnapping in the central Philippine island of Palawan where they took 20 hostages, including Burnham and his wife, Gracia and Sobero. During the movement of the hostages in June 2001 by the Abu Sayyaf, two hostages, who were foreign national employees of the resort, were beheaded on Basilan Island. Sali’s group along with 17 of the hostages then proceeded to Jose Torres Memorial Hospital in Lamitan town in Basilan island where they seized and detained additional hostages.
Later in June 2001, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded Sobero. In January 2002, Sali made statements during a radio interview denouncing the arrival of US military advisers in the Philippines to participate in joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines designed to locate and combat the Abu Sayyaf and rescue the hostages.
Gracia Burnham, in a statement after her rescue by army commandos in 2002, observed that Sali was the worst of their captors. “Based on the six months I had close contact with Solaiman during our year of captivity, I would say he was the most dangerous of the Abu Sayyaf leaders because he was filled with hate.”
From Builder to Destroyer
The military and police also lamented that Sali, who once worked overseas, as an engineer, had transformed into a destroyer.
He began his activism by joining the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), 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, Solaiman was asked by The Associated Press 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.
Solaiman’s death on Tuesday was almost left unknown. In the initial reports after Tuesday’s fighting in Patikul on Jolo island, the military said Solaiman was believed to be among those wounded. It said one body had been found at the site.
After taking photos of the body, troops buried it “out of respect,” but that it was immediately dug up when people who had known Solaiman recognized him from the pictures, said Gen. Esperon.
Presidential Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Solaiman’s death was a “collateral effect” of the RP-US Balikatan war games. “He had a P5-million and $1-million (reward) on his head and we don’t know who will be reported by the military as responsible for giving the information about Abu Solaiman. But the important thing is he is dead. D-E-A-D,” Ermita said at his weekly press briefing.
He said the Palace was glad that government operations against the Abu Sayyaf were “reaping success.”
“At the rate they’re going ... with the constant pressure from the (AFP), especially the Special Forces, the Rangers and the Marines, it will not be long before we account for these significant commanders of the Abu Sayyaf, and, for that matter, the death or capture of JI personalities in the person of Dulmatin and Patek,” Ermita said.
He also said Solaiman’s death meant that the Abu Sayyaf was weakening.
“The center of gravity of any dissident group is the commander,” he said. “We are succeeding in our counter-dissident operations.” Ermita also disclosed that he would meet today with a top US Embassy official who had asked to see him.
He said he intended to ask the official about the results of the Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into whether the body dug from a grave in Sulu last September was that of Khadaffy Janjalani.(With reports by agencies and the Inquirer News Service)