• Sayyaf member’s brod, a bomb maker, also a person of interest• Police, military, OTS heighten nationwide alert level• More reason to keep martial law in Mindanao—Palace
The Islamic State terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the double bomb attack on a Catholic church in Jolo, Sulu, that killed 20 people and wounded scores of others, but police said they suspect the blasts were the work of the brother of a slain Abu Sayyaf leader.
SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activities, said ISIS issued a formal communique Monday claiming two suicide bombers had detonated explosive belts Sunday inside and outside the church.
But Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde said CCTV footage showed Alias Kamah, a bomb maker and brother of bandit leader Surakah Ingog, and several other suspects near the church shortly before the two blasts.
Investigators said the two kilos of explosives used in the attack were probably set off by a cellphone.
READ: Pope Francis, world leaders condemn attacks
Sunday’s bomb attack came a week after most voters in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao—except for Sulu province—ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law in a plebiscite. The law creates a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in which Muslims will have greater autonomy.
President Rodrigo Duterte visited the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Cathedral Monday afternoon and, surrounded by coffins of those who died in the attack, spoke to the people gathered near the ruins of the church.
His spokesman said the President was outraged by the attack and disappointed that, despite the steps toward peace, there were still those who sowed terror and murdered people.
READ: Jolo blasts: 20 dead, 81 hurt
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said they were aware of the ISIS claim of responsibility, but rather than speculate, they would await the results of an investigation to determine who was behind the attack.
Panelo also fended off suggestions that martial law was not effective, since it did not stop the church attack. He said attacks such as this were all the more reason to keep martial law in place in Mindanao.
Following the blast, the PNP and AFP put their forces on heightened alert nationwide.
“Regional directors were instructed to initiate further security measures to preempt and prevent similar incidents [in their] areas,” said PNP director for operations, Mao Aplasca.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, meanwhile, played down the ISIS claim, saying it was “still propaganda at this time.”
“They have [made] false claims in the past,” he said, citing the Resorts World incident in 2017 in which a lone gunman went on a rampage.
The PNP had enforced a lockdown in the Jolo town proper, setting up several checkpoints along its perimeter. Anyone entering the area will be subject to inspection.
Commercial establishments remained closed in downtown Jolo while residents in the outlying towns opted to stayed home.
Government officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, AFP chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, Acting Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano and Albayalde flew to Jolo to inspect the blast site.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said they were looking to two groups as persons of interest, including Kamah.
Albayalde played down the possibility that it was a suicide attack.
“It’s very unlikely that a suspected suicide bomber carrying a big bag with explosives in it would penetrate inside without having been noticed by churchgoers,” he said.
He said cellphone parts were found at the blast site suggesting a phone was used as the detonator.
Metro Manila too was put under heightened alert.
National Capital Region Police Office Director Guillermo Eleazar ordered all police commanders in Manila and Quezon City, and the Eastern, Southern, and Northern Police districts to intensify checkpoint operations at entry and exit points of Metro Manila.
“I have placed the NCRPO in full alert status,” he said.
In the next few weeks, he said, the NCRPO will increase the number and frequency of checkpoints including its ongoing “Oplan Sita.”
“We will deploy our policemen and women in strategic areas of Metro Manila to increase police presence and visibility, to discourage, prevent and deter any evil plots from unfolding,” added Eleazar.
He said there was no reason for the public to be alarmed and asked people to continue with their daily routines.
“I encourage you to remain alert and vigilant. Report any suspicious person or behavior, report any new or unfamiliar face in the neighborhood to the nearest policeman,” Eleazar said.
At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, personnel of the Office for Transportation Security are also on alert and are screening all passengers entering at the initial and final security check thoroughly. With AFP
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