Local Abu Sayyaf faction behind deadly Philippine church bombings, says army chief
MANILA: Twin bombings during a church service on a southern Philippine island were most likely perpetrated by a cell from a domestic militant group, the country’s armed forces chief said Tuesday.
The Jan. 27 attacks on Jolo Island, Sulu province, killed at least 21 people and wounded more than 100. They were one of the deadliest in recent years in a region plagued by decades of instability.
“The most prominent, the most possible angle is that it was perpetrated by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) under commander Hajjan Sawadjan” with the support of the Ajang-Ajang faction of the group, Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. told Arab News.
Abu Sayyaf, meaning “Bearer of the Sword,” was founded in the 1990s. Some factions pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014 and mostly engage in piracy and kidnap for ransom. Experts say the group is fragmented and lacks a central command, operating largely in disparate cells run by different commanders across the Sulu Archipelago.
Ajang-Ajang, a cell within ASG, is notorious for kidnapping and extortion in Sulu. Police believe it carried out the church attacks in revenge for relatives who were killed during military operations against ASG.
Military and police officials said the bombs — planted inside and outside of the church — appeared to have been detonated remotely.
On Tuesday the military also identified one of the suspects as Kamah, a known bombmaker and brother of slain senior ASG figure Surakah Ingog.
Madrigal said it was unclear if the church attacks were suicide bombings.
If confirmed as suicide bombings they would be the second such attack in the Philippines and consistent with details of a claim of responsibility by Daesh through its Amaq news agency on Monday.
The army chief downplayed the Daesh announcement, however, saying anyone could claim the attack and it was yet to be proven if it was the work of the jihadi group.
He said it was possible that Sawadjan’s forces were inspired by Daesh, but that the attackers were “locals, and part of the ASG.”
There have been reports in the last few years that foreign Daesh fighters forced out of Syria and Iraq were arriving in the Philippines with the aim of recruiting.
Daesh announced in 2016 that it had established what it called the “East Asia Province” in the Philippines, appointing ex-ASG leader Insilon Hapilon as its chief.
More than 1,100 people were killed in 2017 when pro-Daesh militants attacked and held the Philippine city of Marawi for five months, leading to massive destruction across the scenic lakeside town.
Last year Daesh said it was behind an attack in which a device was detonated by the driver of a van when he was stopped at a remote checkpoint in Basilan province, killing 11 people. The driver was believed to be a foreigner and may have triggered the device prematurely, security officials told journalists at the time.
“Daesh-linked personalities have been looking into Southeast Asia,” Madrigal said. He added there were reports that some transnational individuals linked with the group had embedded themselves in ASG and were engaged in training its members, especially in IED making.
But the general claimed that such individuals had been thwarted.
“We have to maintain and enhance our coordination with our Asian neighbors so that even before coming into the Philippines we are able to arrest and neutralize these personalities,” he said, referring to Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Philippines’ immigration bureau said it was on high alert to prevent the possible entry of foreign terrorists.
Madrigal said local government units needed to be improved further so they could raise awareness on how to identify and inform authorities about suspicious people in their surroundings.