KUALA LUMPUR: Of all the militants involved in the Marawi siege that is now entering into its fourth week, Malaysian Dr Mahmud Ahmad, 39, is the least known outside of his own country.
But Dr Mahmud is someone regional security officials view as among the most dangerous - the brains behind the Maute and Islamic State (IS) faction of the Abu Sayyaf group fighting in Marawi.
Dr Mahmud was a lecturer at the Islamic studies department at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, according to a senior intelligence source.
In the 1990s, he went to study at the International Islamic University of Islamabad in Pakistan where he joined Al-Qaeda. During his semester break, he crossed into Afghanistan to undergo paramilitary training.
“When he returned home, he was already radicalised but nobody knew about it. He became a lecturer and quietly went about his life for many years,” a senior Malaysian intelligence source told Channel NewsAsia.
“He was in fact a sleeper cell. He was waiting for his time. This is a trademark of Al-Qaeda, their members don’t exhibit their activities and thoughts for many years, unlike IS."
A quiet man, he is known to be intelligent and charismatic, commanding the respect of many, including Abu Sayyaf’s chief Isnilon Hapilon and his men.
“He is very charismatic and intelligent," said the source. "When he speaks, he commands people’s attention because of his religious knowledge, experience and commitment. As such, he can easily recruit people.
“He has very good networks throughout the region. I believe he can unite all the different (militant) elements in the Southeast Asia region and beyond. This is what makes him dangerous."
Dr Mahmud is known to have recruited and arranged for the passage of Malaysians to Syria to join IS, including the country’s first suicide bomber.
“One of them is Malaysia’s first suicide bomber, Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki,” said the source.
Tarmimi, 26, was a factory worker who joined IS in Syria. He was later sent to Iraq where he drove an SUV laden with bombs into Iraq’s SWAT team headquarters in Anbar province in March 2014, killing himself and 25 soldiers.
In April 2014, Dr Mahmud got word that the police were after him and he fled from Malaysia to southern Philippines along with two other associates.
During a counter-terrorism operation, police discovered that Dr Mahmud had founded a new cell in 2014 known as the Arakan Daulah Islamiyah (ADL).
“When we first discovered Arakan Daulah Islamiyah, we were puzzled as Arakan is the name of the Myanmar state where Rohingyas come from,” said the source.
“We later discovered ADL had links with Rohingyas and many others throughout the region, and were planning to link up with the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines,” said the source.
“ADL also arranged for its members to go for para-military training in southern Philippines before making their way to Syria,” the source added.
Dr Mahmud is currently believed to be the right hand man of Abu Sayaf’s leader, Isnilon Hapilon and he is in Marawi city.
“He is there as a fighter to fight against the Filipino military,” the source said.
The former university lecturer has far bigger ambitions than just recruiting people to go to Syria and fighting in Marawi, according to sources.
He plans to set up an IS territory in Southeast Asia in southern Philippines together with the Abu Sayyaf group’s leader Isnilon Hapilon.
“But that will be very difficult to do, to set up and hold on to a territory. But this fighting in Marawi will inspire IS supporters in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere in the region to go to the city. They will see Marawi as the new jihad zone,” said the source.
Filipino Isnilon Hapilon, 51, is the leader of the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf group based in Basilan on Mindanao Island.
He is on the US Department of Justice’s "Most Wanted Terrorist" list, with a US$5 million reward for information leading to his capture for allegedly helping the group kidnap 20 hostages from a Filipino resort - which included three American citizens - in 2001.
One of the Americans was eventually beheaded. It is unclear whether Hapilon was involved in the beheading.
In 2014, Hapilon pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.
According to a 2016 report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), IS endorsed Hapilon as its emir, or leader, for Southeast Asia and that Southeast Asians in Syria have pledged loyalty to him.
“His appointment may reflect his long ties to foreign jihadis, communication with Southeast Asians affiliated to IS in Syria; his perceived control of territory; or his own eagerness for the role,” said IPAC’s director Sidney Jones.
THE MAUTE BROTHERS
IPAC described the Maute group as having "the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members" of all the pro-Islamic State outfits in the Philippines.
In the early 2000s, brothers Omarkhayam Maute and Abdullah Maute studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.
Omarkhayam went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met the daughter of a conservative Indonesian Islamic cleric. After they married, the couple returned to Indonesia. There, Omarkhayam taught at his father-in-law's school, and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.
It may have been then, and not when he was in the Middle East, that Omarkhayam was radicalised.
In Cairo, none of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all, and photographs show a young man enchanted by his baby daughters and playing with the growing family by the Red Sea, according to IPAC.
Reuters reported that little is known about Abdullah's life after he went to Jordan, and it is not clear when he returned to Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province that includes Marawi.
Intelligence sources were quoted by Reuters as saying there are seven brothers and one half-brother in the family, all but one of whom joined the battle for Marawi.
The Mautes were a monied family in a close-knit tribal society where respect, honour and the Quran are paramount.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera Herrera said the Mautes enjoyed strong support in Marawi.
"This is their place, this is where their family is, this is where their culture is, this is where the heritage is. There is a huge sympathetic perspective towards the ... Maute," Reuters quoted Herrera as saying.
The Maute group first surfaced in 2013 with a bombing of a nightclub in nearby Cagayan de Oro. Its stature has grown since then, most notably with the bombing last year of a street market in President Rodrigo Duterte's hometown, Davao City, Reuters reported.