MANILA: A Filipino militant is suspected of carrying out an apparent suicide bombing last week in the southern Philippines, an army general said yesterday, a grim first for the insurgency-plagued nation. Philippine targets have been struck in the past in rare instances of suicide attacks, but this would be first believed to have been carried out by a Filipino. The bombing Friday of a military base on the southern island of Jolo killed at least five people and bore the hallmarks of a suicide attack, authorities said.
Major General Cirilito Sobejana told AFP the suspected bomber’s remains were identified by his mother and a sibling, but DNA testing was needed to confirm the preliminary identification. Sobejana said investigators can’t entirely rule out the possibility the bomb was remotely detonated and the 23-year-old suspect, who allegedly has ties to jihadist group Abu Sayyaf, was merely carrying it. “The probability that it was a suicide bombing is very high, but we also have to consider those possibilities,” he added.
If confirmed, the bomber would be the first known local suicide attacker in a nation where security officials had long said the tactic goes against local culture. Philippine defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Monday the attack was “obviously a suicide bombing”, describing it as an important development in the nation’s restive south.
Insurgent groups have killed tens of thousands in their decades-long fight for a separate Muslim homeland in the Catholic-majority nation. The defense chief said Friday’s blast was the third suicide attack on the Philippines, following a July 2018 van bomb in southern Basilan island, and explosions during Sunday mass in January at a Catholic cathedral in Jolo. All three attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which takes credit for the violence carried out by local affiliates such as kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf.
Authorities have blamed foreign attackers for the two previous blasts which killed more than 30 people. Sobejana added the suspect was a member of the Abu Sayyaf faction led by Hajan Sawadjaan, who allegedly plotted the attack on the Jolo cathedral in January. Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for some of the worst terror attacks in Philippine history, including frequent kidnappings of foreigners.
Members of the group have pledged allegiance to IS, including those who participated in the 2017 siege of the southern city of Marawi. Analysts have said suicide attacks could be taking root in the Philippines, driven by IS influence. “It is an escalation, but it’s also a sign of increased radicalization,” said Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in Washington.
“The change did not come with (Friday’s) bombing, it came with the introduction of a lethal new ideology into the Philippines,” said security analyst Sidney Jones. “The game-changer” was the Islamic State, she added. As its “caliphate” crumbled in the Middle East, IS has stepped up its strategy of absorbing existing insurgent groups around the world and claiming their attacks. The group has had a presence for years in the south of the Philippines, where rugged terrain and weak government control provide a safe haven for fighters.
Suicide attacks indicate a higher level of commitment to the militant cause, experts say, and are often approved by the central leadership of IS, who trade off the media profile the tactic brings. The group has taken credit for Friday’s blasts, as well as the deaths of over 30 people, killed in two previous attacks believed to be the work of suicide bombers. The first was a July 2018 van bomb at a checkpoint in southern Basilan island, followed by the explosions during Sunday mass in January at a Catholic cathedral in Jolo.
“Society is changing. Their method of attack is changing. Suicide bombing is the current and future method of attack,” said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. At the same time, there are strong motivations from local militant cells to try to catch the eye of the IS central leadership with suicide attacks. “Members of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia might be thinking they really need to up their game to get back in the good graces of Islamic State central,” said Abuza. – AFP