Malaysian teacher Mahmud Ahmad seen as new ‘emir’ of pro-Islamic State militants in Southeast Asia
Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict said he controlled recruitment and financing and was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East
The deaths of two leaders of an Islamic State alliance in the southern Philippines could thrust a Malaysian who trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as the militant group’s new regional “emir”, experts say.
Intelligence officials described Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad as a financier and recruiter, who helped form the coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters that stormed Marawi City in May.
Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two Middle East-educated brothers at the helm of the militant alliance, were killed in a raid on a building in Marawi and their bodies recovered on Monday, Philippine authorities said, adding they were still searching for Mahmud.
“Based on our information, there is still one personality, Dr Mahmud of Malaysia, and he is still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians,” General Eduardo Ano said. “But their attitude is now different, they are no longer as aggressive as before.”
Abdullah Maute, the alliance’s military commander, was reported killed in August, though no body was found. Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe Mahmud left Marawi months ago.
Malaysia’s police counterterrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said in July that Mahmud “managed to sneak out from Marawi city to another safe place with his followers”.
Mahmud, 39, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was a university lecturer in Kuala Lumpur, was Hapilon’s second-in-command in IS’s Southeast Asia “caliphate”, according to a July report by Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).
Mahmud controlled recruitment and financing, the IPAC report said. He was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East, it said.
“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr Mahmud … he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones said.
Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as “the most important IS leader in Southeast Asia”.
Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counterterrorism adviser to the police, said Mahmud also often solicited funds for IS operations.
Mahmud grew up in Batu Caves, a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb famous for a Hindu temple housed in a complex of caverns. His wife and three children were last known to be living there, but could not be located.
Residents said Mahmud, before he left Malaysia in 2014, taught young Muslim students at a tahfiz, a school to memorise the Koran, in Nakhoda, a village near Batu Caves.
“When he [Mahmud] started the school, he did stay there for the first one or two years, but then he just disappeared,” said Zainon Mat Arshad, 50, a Nakhoda resident who went to the mosque where Mahmud prayed.
“When he was at the tahfiz school, he kept mostly to himself and if he had come over to pray on Friday, I don’t think anyone would have recognised him,” Zainon said. “He didn’t mingle with the local community.”
Security experts said Mahmud studied at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan where he learned to make improvised explosive devices at an al-Qaeda camp. In 2000, he returned to Malaysia to get a doctorate, which earned him a post as a lecturer in the Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
The few signs of his militant beliefs were discovered later, including a book he wrote on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah, said Ahmad, the IIUM lecturer. He was put on Malaysia’s most wanted list in April 2014 after leaving the country with several others, including his aide, a Malaysian bomb maker named Mohammad Najib Husen, to work with the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, Ahmad said.