On 16 October, two top Philippine ISIS affiliated leaders were killed, according to authorities, in a major ongoing standoff with Philippine security forces in the southern city of Marawi. Isnilon Hapilon, the terror group’s emir for Southeast Asia and commander of the Abu Sayyaf (one of the groups that formed ISIS in the Philippines province) and Omarkhayam Maute, leader of local militant Maute group that had also pledged allegiance to ISIS, were killed on Monday along with seven other militants.
Currently, Philippine forces are continuing to battle the remaining militants who have captured about 20 hostages. Dozens of fighters still remain in Marawi, but with the deaths of Hapilon and Maute, the ISIS affiliated militants will likely hasten their retreat under a neutralized military and political leadership.
The siege of Marawi ignited in May when military and police tried to serve an arrest warrant against Hapilon, which precipitated clashes between Abu Sayyaf militants and government forces in the Southern Philippine city. Maute Group, headed by Omar Maute and his brother Abdullah (killed last August), joined forces with during this early period in which hundreds of militants began running street battles with government forces, including kidnapping hostages.
The deaths of Hapilon acts as a major setback not just for Abu Sayyaf but also for the jihadist group. It means that both Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in the Southeast Asia will reemerge with a new leader. The selection of the new emir will be important to figure out the group balance of power within the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. As Filipino militants have been known to rarely accept foreigners as their leaders in a culture where family and clan ties are important, the choice will be crucial for leader’s effectiveness to get the different groups to well connect and cooperate effectively.
On October 16, the Iraqi government forces launched a major operation to retake key areas of Kirkuk province from Kurdish forces. In less than 24 hours, the Iraqi army, federal police, special operation forces and Popular Mobilization Units conquered Kirkuk city, adjacent military bases, key energy facilities and oil fields. All those areas are disputed between Erbil and Baghdad and have been held by Kurdish parties since 2014. This escalation comes in the wake of the controversial September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence, which has since been rejected by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) deployed thousands of troops around Kirkuk in preparation for an attack by the Iraqi army; however, a large portion of the Peshmerga, under Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) control, withdrew from the fight. Due to their withdrawal, the Peshmerga under Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) control were eventually outnumbered and forced from the city. The Peshmerga’s and political leadership’s different behavior sets precedent for further rift between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties, which fought a civil war in the 90s and have maintained separate Peshmerga, police forces and intelligence services ever since.
In light of the attempts towards independence, the loss of Kirkuk is a real turning point for the KRG as it has lost an essential source of revenue: without Kirkuk’s oil fields becoming economically independent would be almost impossible in the short term. Additionally, this loss is also one of bargaining power with Baghdad.
Not only is there increasing distrust between Baghdad and KDP-dominated KRG, but the rift between the longtime sidelined PUK and KDP, rekindled by events in Kirkuk, could deepen with new clashes over the balance of power within the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
On October 16, more than 300 people were killed when a powerful truck-bomb exploded in the capital Mogadishu. This attack in Somalia is considered the deadliest since the jihadist group al-Shabaab launched its insurgency in 2007. The attack has not been claimed by any group, but there are strong suspicions on al-Shabaab responsibility.
According to some sources, the primary target of the attack was not the civilian population, but the Turkish military base of Mogadishu. The truck-bomb driver decided to detonate the explosive when stopped by the police for a routine check of the load. Opened last September, the military infrastructure hosts about 200 Turkish soldiers and it is primarily intended to provide training packages to the Somali Armed Forces. According to the Turkish-Somali memorandum, Ankara will train about 10,000 Somali soldiers.
Despite its expulsion from Mogadishu in August 2011, al-Shabaab continues to control large areas of territory in the center and south of the country, especially in rural districts. Although the capacity enhancement of the Somali Armed Forces and Police and the effectiveness of AFRICOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) have contributed to the resizing of terrorist and insurgency-related threat, al-Shabaab continues to represent the main challenge to stability of both Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa region.