Twenty-one people dead. Ninety-seven injured. That was the toll when two bombs exploded at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo on July 27.
The twin explosions occurred about a few minutes apart, survivors said. The first explosion took place inside the cathedral as Sunday Mass was being held. The second blast took place as survivors of the first explosion, some of them already wounded, streamed out of the cathedral and as soldiers, policemen and other emergency personnel arrived.
This second explosion, which took place at the Cathedral’s parking lot, added to the carnage.
Pope Francis, who was in Panama City for a pastoral visit, condemned the bombing as a terrorist attack. He called it an “act of violence that causes more mourning in the Christian community.”
“I pray for the dead and the injured,” the Pope said. “May the Lord, prince of peace, convert the hearts of the violent ones.”
The European Union Delegation to the Philippines also released a statement conveying “its deepest condolences and sympathies to the families of those who were killed and injured in Jolo, Sulu following the twin blasts that hit a cathedral” on Jan. 27.
“I express my solidarity with the Filipino people during these trying times,” said European Union Ambassador Franz Jessen. “Filipinos have always been resilient, steadfast, and collaborative and I am certain that these values will see them through in this sad situation,” he said.
Other diplomats and officials of international organizations condemned the bombing and expressed their support for the Philippines.
ATTEMPTED ISIS LINK
Even as statements of international support for the Philippines poured in, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the blasts.
Anti-terrorism experts monitored the terrorist organization’s announcement, which was made online.
The spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, Col. Gerry Besana, acknowledged receiving reports that ISIS did make such a claim.
A retired senior military officer who was involved in anti-terror operations, expressed caution about accepting the reported ISIS announcement.
“That group has a record of taking credit for attacks that it had no link with whatsoever,” the officer, who spoke on condition anonymity, told the Philippines Graphic.
The example he cited was the incident at the Resorts World Manila where 38 people, including the gunman, was killed on June 2, 2017. ISIS claimed it was a lone wolf terrorist attack staged by one of operatives. A subsequent investigation showed it was a botched robbery that ended with the robber’s suicide. The victims died from smoke inhalation after the perpetrator set several casino tables on fire.
The officer said that the ISIS claim was believable at first glance because the Resorts World Manila robbery and arson incident took place while the Marawi Siege was still ongoing. The gunmen who attempted to take over the Islamic City of Marawi belonged to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf, both of whom had already publicly announced their ISIS affiliation.
He reminded the Graphic that the botched robbery at Resorts World Manila took place just as the Maute Group was attempting to establish a foothold in Mindanao for ISIS.
Despite discounting the ISIS claim, authorities generally agreed that this bombing attack was likely the work of the Abu Sayyaf Group.
BALI ATTACK SIMILARITY
The Graphic was told that the bombing of the Cathedral in Jolo bear similarities with the twin blasts that hit Bali in 2002.
“A second bomb went off in the parking lot, the exact place where folk fleeing the first explosion in the church would go and where first responders would arrive,” he said. “It’s been done before, most notably in Bali where a second larger bomb was aimed at responders who were assisting survivors.”
“This makes me wonder if local operators just picked up that technique or if foreign terrorists have been visiting our southern islands again, lately,” he added.
However, he expressed caution about assigning blame for the Jolo cathedral blasts.
“There’s a temptation to jump to conclusions on who’s behind the bombing,” he warned.
The infamous Bali attack on Oct. 12, 2002 left 202 people dead. The first bomb detonated inside a club.
As survivors exited the establishment and reached the street, police and other emergency personnel arrived just as other people gathered to see what was happening. Then the second larger bomb exploded.
The Bali bombing pattern has since been imitated in other attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries.
One important point about the 2002 Bali attack was that it involved two suicide bombers. This raises the question: Were suicide bombers also involved in the bombing of the Cathedral in Jolo?
If so, this would be a game changer by raising the terrorist threat level. Previous terrorist bombings that occurred in the Philippines were caused mostly by remote detonation through the use of cell phones or occasionally by timing devices. None were the work of suicide bombers.
President Rodrigo Duterte said a man and a woman were responsible for the twin blasts. He explained that a woman brought the first bomb inside the Cathedral while the man was responsible for the second explosion.
The spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Col. Noel Detoyato, was quoted in news reports as saying that “at least two survivors recalled seeing a woman leave a bag on one of the pews before the first explosion went off.”
The AFP spokesman explained that the bag contained an improvised explosive device which was remotely detonated.
However, investigators still have to determine whether the second explosion was the work of a suicide bomber.
DUTERTE VISITS JOLO
Even as investigators comb the blast site for evidence, the President visited Jolo.
Duterte walked slowly into the bombed cathedral, where the wooden pews were still in disarray. At one point he looked at the ceiling, where many panels were ripped off by the blasts.
Duterte later met with families of the victims at a military camp in Jolo where coffins were laid side by side.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with the President, blamed the attack on Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Sawadjaan, who he said has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
“This is an act of terrorism,” Lorenzana said. “This is not a religious war.”
Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul, near Jolo, and has been blamed for ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years.
The bombings came nearly a week after referendum for the Bangsamoro Organic Law was held. Although most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that is opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that were not part of any peace process.
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact. They worry that small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
There have been speculations that the bombings may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently carried out an offensive that killed a number of IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was besieged for five months by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters, in 2017. Troops quelled the militant gunmen’s attempt to take the city. The fighting left more 1,100 mostly militants dead and the heartland of the mosque-studded city in ruins.
Duterte declared martial law in the entire southern third of the country to deal with the Marawi siege, his worst security crisis. His martial law declaration has been extended to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents but bombings and other attacks have continued.—With Associated Press report