Abu Sayyaf commander Umbra Jumdail had deviated from the brutal image of his al-Qaida-linked militant group by playing doctor to poor Filipino villagers, whose backing he needed to stay safe from military troops. But those villagers may have been used by the military to finally track him down last week.
A U.S.-backed airstrike killed Jumdail, his son and several militants while they slept in huts or hammocks Thursday near Parang town on southern Jolo island, dealing the latest blow to the Abu Sayyaf and depriving it of a key leader. Jumdail had harbored a top Southeast Asian terror suspect, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan.
Among the FBI's most-wanted terrorists, Marwan, a U.S.-educated engineer, had been crucial in helping turn mostly desperate peasant recruits into Abu Sayyaf bombers and training them to carry out deadly attacks.
The Philippine military had announced that the long-hunted Marwan and his Singaporean ally Abdullah Ali were killed in the air raid along with Jumdail and other Filipino extremists. Two security officials, however, said Sunday that new intelligence shows that Jumdail was killed but that the two foreign terror suspects were alive and were not in the Abu Sayyaf lair that was bombed.
Not a single body was retrieved by police in the bombed hilly jungle lair near Lanao Dakulah village, fueling different versions of who was killed.
Philippine officials, nevertheless, hailed Jumdail's death as the latest major blow to the Abu Sayyaf, which has carved its name in blood through bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. The extremist group is on Washington's list of terrorist organizations. The militants, currently estimated to number less than 400, have endured years of battle setbacks and the loss of key commanders.
"He had the charisma and was the real link used by foreign militants," military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said of Jumdail. "He was a big loss."
Jumdail had taken a course related to medicine, enabling him to serve as a rebel medic who treated wounded comrades when he joined the Moro National Liberation Front, once the Philippines' largest Muslim separatist group.
He left the Moro group after it signed a 1996 peace pact with the government and eventually emerged as a commander of the violent Abu Sayyaf, which was organized by a Filipino militant after helping wage the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, according to Jumdail's former comrades.
While surrounded by militants notorious for beheading hostages, Jumdail had ingratiated himself to many villagers by providing treatment for tropical maladies. He performed jungle surgery to wounded combatants, earning the rebel alias "Dr. Abu Pula."
Rep. Lady Ann Sahidulla, who negotiated for the release of three Red Cross aid workers taken hostage by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in 2009, said she saw Jumdail treating ill villagers with herbs in an Abu Sayyaf jungle encampment. "Doc Abu was kind, but then why didn't he say no to their atrocities?" she said.
While Sahidulla talked with Jumdail, a villager rushed to his lair and warned him that troops were approaching with a tank, though no clash erupted, she said.
Out of mistrust, Sahidulla said she hid a small pistol in her bra in case the violent militants with Jumdail would try something nasty. The three aid workers, from Switzerland, Italy and the Philippines, were eventually freed, reportedly after ransom payments.
A captured Abu Sayyaf commander now under the government's witness protection program has described Jumdail as a "local Robin Hood" who used his loot to help out poor Muslim villagers and keep their loyalty.
Surviving militants suspect that villagers secretly working for the military traveled to Jumdail's hideout and pretended to seek medical treatment to be able to bring in and leave some kind of sensor, which was later used by the military to set its bomber planes on his Abu Sayyaf lair, said a Philippine military intelligence official who had been helping monitor the militants.
The impact of the blasts destroyed huts and toppled trees, including a mango tree that pinned Jumdail, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Despite his image, Jumdail was no less dangerous.
U.S. and Philippine officials had offered bounties for Jumdail's capture for high-profile ransom kidnappings. His group was planning terror attacks, including new kidnappings of foreigners and bombings, when he was killed along with his son, who was also an Abu Sayyaf fighter, officials said.