MANILA – The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for a twin bomb attack on a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Philippines’ volatile south on Sunday (Jan 27) that killed at least 20 and left over 100 wounded.
The terrorist group made the claim hours after the attack via its Amaq news agency mouthpiece, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online activities of militants.
ISIS directly released its own statement shortly afterwards, claiming two suicide bombers triggered the blasts with explosives tied around their belts.
Investigators in the Philippines, however, are not seeing signs of a suicide attack.
An initial report said the second bomb that tore through the parking lot just outside the compound of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Jolo island, in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, was probably rigged onto a motorcycle.
The first bomb was likely planted on one of the wooden pews inside the church.
Sunday’s attack was one of the deadliest in recent years in a region long plagued by instability.
Visiting the blast site on Monday (Jan 28), Director-General Oscar Albayalde, the police chief, told reporters the bombs could have been set off with a mobile phone.
Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesman of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said in a radio interview CCTV footage showed militants from the “Ajang-ajang sub-group” of the Abu Sayyaf could be behind the attack.
The Abu Sayyaf, a gang of self-styled Islamic militants founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, has long used Sulu as a base, carrying out kidnappings and bombings. It has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Though the group officially has a separatist and Islamist agenda, it has capitalised on decades of instability in Mindanao to generate tens of millions of dollars from piracy and ransom payments.
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have carried out the worst terror attacks in Philippine history, including the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay that killed more than 100 people in 2004.
The Ajang-ajang faction is believed to consist of fathers, sons and brothers of Abu Sayyaf militants killed by security forces.
“Ajang-ajang” is an ethnic term that means “sons of warriors” or “sons of martyrs”.
Mr Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institution for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told CNN Philippines on Monday the Ajang-ajang faction had apparently levelled up from extortion and kidnapping to ideology-fuelled revenge killings.
He said it is believed that Hatib Sawadjaan, an ISIS sympathiser and father-in-law of Tawau-born Malaysian militant Amin Baco, now heads the group.
Baco was, at one time, rumoured to have been designated as ISIS’ new “emir” in South-east Asia, replacing Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayyaf chieftain killed in the five-month siege in 2017 of the southern city of Marawi.
But analysts say despite his long experiencing in fighting a guerilla war in Sulu, he lacks standing among militants in the region to be recognised as an “emir”.
Brigadier-General Divino Rey Pabayo, commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, confirmed that intelligence officials had received reports of attacks being planned by the Abu Sayyaf.
“We had been receiving information that (the Abu Sayyaf), with a foreign terrorist in the area, are planning to (bomb) an urban or populated area,” he told the ABS-CBN News Channel.
But Col Besana said it had yet to be determined whether ISIS had a hand in the attack.
“At this point, what we are sure is that terrorist groups are behind it. As for the participation of ISIS-linked terrorist groups, we cannot discount that. But, of course, they will always do that; they will always claim these kinds of terrorist attacks,” he said.
The attack came nearly a week after more than 1.5 million Muslims, a minority in the predominantly Catholic nation, overwhelmingly approved a more powerful autonomous region in the Philippines’ south.
They had voted for the new, self-administered region called the “Bangsamoro”, or nation of Moros, in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion and reining in a new wave of Islamist extremism sweeping war-torn Mindanao island.
Voters in Sulu, however, rejected it. Still, the province will be included in the new Bangsamoro region, as it is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which as a bloc voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Bangsamoro law.
That has raised fears of reprisals by militant groups.
The Abu Sayyaf and other small units of Muslim radicals scattered across Mindanao are opposed to any peace deal with the government.
They are opting instead to embrace ISIS’ wider agenda to establish a “caliphate” in South-east Asia.
Meanwhile, Senior Superintendent Bernard Banac, police spokesman, said at a news conference on Monday the nation’s 170,000-strong police force had been placed on “heightened alert status” to prevent further attacks.
That covers metropolitan Manila, the capital region, where security forces were placed on “full alert status”.
Director Guillermo Eleazar, the region’s police chief, said this means more checkpoints and patrols, especially around shopping malls, train and bus stations, ports and other vulnerable targets in the capital.
Law enforcement officers were also ordered to cancel their leaves.
“We don’t see the possibility of this spilling out into Metro Manila. The heightened alert is standard operating procedure,” said Senior Supt Banac.
Jolo, a poverty-racked island of over 700,000, was itself placed on lockdown.