LAHAD DATU - Muamar Askali, the murderous militant who was the face of the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) in videos making ransom demands and beheadings of kidnap victims, has been shot dead.
Askali, more famously known as Abu Rami, was high on the Malaysian and Philippine security forces' wanted list and was one of the few English-speaking Abu Sayyaf leaders.
A photograph of a dead Abu Rami, with his face covered in blood and a flag of the Islamic State (IS) pinned on his military fatigue shirt, was provided to The Star as confirmation of his death.
It is learnt that he and his gang were planning attacks or raids on Easter Sunday on tourist spots in Cebu when five of them were shot dead.
Abu Rami was seen in the Nov 17, 2015, beheading video of Sarawakian Bernard Then, who was kidnapped from the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan in May 2015.
He was also among the last of the remaining Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders involved in kidnap-for-ransom activities of foreigners.
"The death of the ASG leader does not end our grief. We pray, especially during this season of Lent in our Christian calendar, that God will show him mercy. And we hope our Government will continue to step up efforts to secure our shores," said Christopher Then, Bernard's brother.
Abu Rami was also linked to the IS group led by Isnilon Hapilon who was pushing for the setting up of a South-East Asian caliphate based in southern Philippines.
He was behind several kidnappings including a 2015 raid on the southern Philippine island resort of Samal in which four tourists - two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina - were snatched.
The two Canadian men were beheaded last year after their families and government failed to pay ransom.
A former hostage has described Abu Rami, who was in his late 20s, as a "confused individual".
"I saw him as a person with a confused personality," said Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, who was held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf faction led by the Sawadjan family of which Abu Rami was a member.
Baker, kidnapped while on assignment in Jolo on June 12, 2012 and held hostage for 18 months, said Abu Rami shuffled between the Moro National Islamic Front (MNLF) faction led by his uncle Qaed in Indanaan, Jolo island, and the Abu Sayyaf supreme leader (Emir) Radulan Sahiron, who is also known as the one-armed commander.
Baker, now based in Dubai, said that Abu Rami then moved to another sub group headed by Kahal, also known as Ama'a Ma'aas, when he married Kahal's daughter.
Abu Rami took over as commander from his father-in-law who was killed last year and teamed up with the Sawadjan family who were involved in several resort kidnappings in Sabah waters.
He was among five gunmen killed in a bloody gunbattle in Bohol in central Philippines on Tuesday and his death is seen as a big blow to Abu Sayyaf based in Jolo island.
Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) Lt-Gen Carlito Galvez said: "The death of Askali has a big impact. The damage will be felt when it comes to the group's projection of power outside Sulu. He was involved in attacks against foreigners. His capability to reach Bohol showed his aggressiveness."
Abu Rami and a group of about 60 gunmen were believed to have slipped out of Jolo following intensive military operations and headed up to central Philippines' Visaya Islands, and had been hiding out there since Monday while preparing to strike at tourist destinations during this weekend's Easter holiday break.
However, they were spotted by villagers and the Philippines security forces using helicopter gunships bombarded the village, killing five Abu Sayyaf gunmen including Abu Rami.
The security forces lost three soldiers and a policemen in the early Tuesday gunbattle.
The Philippines security forces are now on the hunt for the remnants of the militants who are now said to be "running for their lives".
Just days before the raid, the US and Australian governments had warned their citizens about potential "terrorist" kidnappings on Bohol and neighbouring Cebu, also a major tourist destination.
Authorities said some 100 residents fled the fighting on Bohol.
However, hoteliers and visitors there told AFP that the incident has not affected tourist traffic although there was increased police security.
Bohol bills itself as a tropical paradise sought after by foreign tourists who go there to swim with docile whale sharks, travel its rivers on boat cruises, and lounge on unspoiled beaches.