Summary

Key Details

Date of Incident: 27 January 2019
Location: Jolo, Jolo Island, Philippines
Type: Suicide Bombing
Severity: HIGH

Overview

  • An attack was carried out by insurgents during a Sunday service at a church located on Jolo, in the south-west of the Philippines.
  • The suicide bombing was coordinated and executed by Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that is aligned with the Islamic State, who claimed the attack.
  • 23 people have been killed with over 100 injured in twin explosions.
  • Primary IED strike targeted worshippers inside the church whilst a secondary device located at the church entrance detonated shortly afterwards in order to target first responders.

Incident Details

On 27 January 2019, 20 people were killed and at least 101 injured after two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the southern Philippine island of Jolo. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, which appears to have been co-ordinated by the Ajang-Ajang cell of Abu Sayyaf (Abu Sayyaf Group, ASG) and executed by two Indonesians. The initial blast occurred during Sunday mass after a suicide vest worn by a woman was triggered at 08:27, local time. A secondary suicide vest was detonated shortly after the first by a man, believed to use the nom de guerre Abu Hud, at 08:30 local time on the steps to the Cathedral. The secondary explosion is believed to have been triggered in order to target emergency responders at the scene. This is a common tactic used in IED strikes with the purpose of maximising casualties and disrupting attempts at relief and rescue.

Two days later, on 29 January, four arrests were made by an Indonesian special investigation task group in connection with the twin blasts after a series of raids on locations associated with ASG. Kammah Pae, a suspected bombmaker who is the brother of the late ASG leader Surakah Ingog, surrendered himself to members of the 35th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army on the 4 February. During a search of his home address later in the day, police discovered a third IED alongside enough bomb-making equipment needed to manufacture a further three devices.

Philippine police and military continue to search for another thirteen suspects linked to the bombings and are currently undertaking operations in the Southern Philippines. Officials have warned that all persons affiliated directly with the incident will be facing multiple charges of murder if captured.

On 7 February, Government Secretary and DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government) chief Eduardo Año has declared the incident closed after officials admitted that the National Bureau of Investigation had faced difficulties throughout the probe. Justice secretary Menardo Guevarra has complained that the physical evidence on site had not been properly preserved before the arrival of teams from the Bureau, making investigation significantly more difficult.

The final death toll from the attack at the time of writing is 23 (after several injured victims succumbed to their wounds).

Analyst Comment

The southern Philippines region has proved a difficult place to police and ASG have been able to carry out piracy in the archipelago. The group have financed themselves through kidnap and ransom operations and extortion and have carried out beheadings of hostages when payment is not forthcoming, including in the case of two Canadians in 2015. The five-month siege of Marawi in 2017 saw Abu Sayyaf and Maute insurgents eventually were beaten back from the city in Mindanao but despite government claims of victory operations by ASG have not ceased since then. The latest attack underscores their continuing presence in the Sulu region and raises some concerns for the future direction of the group.

As the territorial conflict in the middle eastern territories that once were held by IS begins to draw to a close, the group is likely to push on with both an insurgency operation in their heartlands and attacks abroad. This raises the spectre of potentially increased global operations in other affiliated territories. Among these, the southern Philippines could prove a fertile hunting ground.

Although IS claimed the bombing almost immediately, no local terror group has yet admitted responsibility. Jolo is considered an ASG stronghold however, and the presence of a number of operatives of the Ajang Ajang cell implicate the group quite clearly in the attack. That ASG has previously sworn bay’ah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi doesn’t instantly confirm that international roots to the bombing; many local operations are inspired by transnational terror groups rather than directly aided by them. ASG is also known as a locally focussed operation, veering between criminality veneered with Islamic extremist motivation and more politically motivated idealism as suits. They are allied with other local groups including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the remnants of the Maute, but the presence of Indonesian bombers lends weight rather to the idea of transnational network operating across at least the localised region.

The attack was relatively well coordinated, with two bombers in possession of effective explosive devices able to infiltrate a crowded area and also a delayed second detonation to hit first responders, a tactic that causes extra casualties and confusion and is also more likely to hit military and police units responding to the initial explosion. The choice of a cathedral at Sunday mass in the Catholic majority country is consistent with a strategy designed to cause both maximum casualties and also maximum fear and outrage among the population, although it is likely to further harden local attitudes towards ASG in a country where they are anyway not believed to be very popular. The cathedral also had the advantage of being a soft target; we do not expect ASG to change the tactic of attacking civilians in future and note that the Lamitan bombing was, in fact, a failed attempt to hit a parade of teachers and students, demonstrating a consistent desire to cause maximum casualties.

This bombing, and the potential signals regarding ASG’s ability, also raises concerns about the current counter-terrorism strategy in the Philippines, which has to some extent relied upon military strength and may prove inadequate to counter a more sophisticated and foreign-funded threat. Reports indicate fighters from places as diverse as Malaysia, Morocco and Pakistan may be in the country, and leaked intelligence reports indicate that local ASG commanders may be communicating with potential foreign recruits by social media. Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has also said that ASG may be harbouring an Egyptian bomb-maker and potential suicide bomber.

The attack on the cathedral in Jolo took place less than a week after a referendum on the creation of a strengthened Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, which won over 88% of the registered vote, although investigations are still ongoing as to whether there was a political motivation of this sort behind the attack. It appears possible that the attack coincided with the referendum as much by chance as design; the motivation was equally likely to be to establish the credentials of the relatively new leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan and to attract support from key IS groups and fighters overseas. Whatever the motive, the attack confirms, that despite the moves towards peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace is likely to continue to prove elusive in parts of the Southern Philippines.

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