Authorities said the so-called Ajang-Ajang faction of the Abu Sayyaf is a small band of several dozen that most likely carried out the bombing, the worst in years, in an act of revenge.
“Last year their [Ajang-Ajang] leader was killed. There have been persistent reports that they will retaliate,” regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said.
“We saw them in the CCTV. It was the brother of the leader who was killed,” he said referring to footage from outside the cathedral. “He was seen with two other members of Ajang-Ajang.”
Security forces say the group is composed of relatives of Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group members who have been killed in clashes with the government.
This developed as President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday he would take no prisoners in the all-out war he declared against the ASG and the communist New People’s Army.
Duterte ordered the country’s armed forces to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired militant group following Sunday’s bomb attack on a Catholic church in Jolo.
The President is also convinced the attack was carried out by suicide bombers—a couple at that, citing warnings from Indonesian intelligence. The wife entered the cathedral to activate the first bomb, then the husband triggered the second bomb outside the church, Duterte said.
“I have no doubt. That is what the military told me, that is what the police relayed to me, and I am guided by what the government workers would tell me,” he added at the sidelines of a groundbreaking ceremony of a new government hospital in Malabon City on Tuesday.
“I order you to destroy the organization. I’m ordering you now: batter the Abu Sayyaf by whatever means,” he earlier told the Armed Forces of the Philippines during a visit to the blast site Monday afternoon.
Abu Sayyaf, which is based on Jolo island, has been blamed for the Philippines’ deadliest attack, a 2004 ferry bombing in Manila Bay that claimed 116 lives.
“There are high-level law enforcement operations against them [Ajang-Ajang],” said Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. “It evolved into a revenge group.”
But while Abu Sayyaf has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, that is not necessarily true for the motley members of Ajang-Ajang.
“Not all members of Ajang-Ajang group are pro-ISIS, but all of them are Abu Sayyaf group,” said Banlaoi using another acronym for IS. “It’s not IS-affiliated.”
Duterte said he was ready to house and feed civilians who should leave the area as he ordered the military “to pulverize the terrorists’ territory.”
“Our duty is to protect the Filipino people. And second is that we have to preserve the nation. If we lost Jolo, even just a small island there, well, we have failed in our mission to preserve the territory of the Republic of the Philippines,” he said.
“I don’t like that ‘surrender-surrender.’ It’ll just be my obligation to feed you then you will go back [to your group],” he said. “I’m telling this to the enemies of the state, f*ck you!”
“Don’t ever think that you’re the only one who can do evil things. If you can do it, I can do it, too,” he said, directly addressing the terrorists.
He said if they wanted bloodshed, that was what the government would give them.
The President differentiated the ASG from groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, saying the ASG was a “movement of evil men” without an ideology.
“We have rebels like Nur Misuari and Murad, but their revolution is purely territorial... Nur is okay, Murad is okay,” he said, referring to the leaders of the MNLF and MILF.
The problem, he said, stemmed from groups like the Abu Sayyaf that “only follow ISIS.”
“I’ve been saying before that ISIS will become our problem,” he said, describing the terrorist group as a “global insurgency.”
On Monday, the military said they are convinced that the ISIS-inspired ASG was behind the bomb attack.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the attack was an act of terrorism aimed at bringing back a religious war.
On Sunday, a bomb ripped through the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral as Mass was being celebrated, while the second bomb detonated at the parking lot in front of the church as security forces responded, causing more deaths and injuries.
The death toll climbed to 21 after a high school student who was taken to Zamboanga for treatment died from his wounds Tuesday.
The ISIS claim, in a formal communique, said two suicide bombers had detonated explosive belts, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activities.
But a military report said a second bomb that went off at the cathedral was left in the utility box of a motorcycle in the parking area outside and detonated remotely through a cell phone.
Security forces have sealed off the island of Jolo in an attempt to intercept the bombers.
“They are still in Jolo and we are tracking them now,” said Besana.
The authorities believe six people were behind Sunday’s attack, including a certain Kamah, a bomb maker and brother of a slain bandit leader.
Checkpoints were set up along potential escape routes while navy vessels patrolled the coastline of Jolo and Zamboanga.
Police and military officials identified the civilian fatalities in Sunday’s bomb attack as Leo Herbolario; Bibing Perpetua; Reynaldo Pescadera Sr., Ridzmar Mukadil; Romolo Reyes; Albacora Perpetua; Niseria dela Cruz; Cecilia Sanchez; Daisy P. Delos Reyes; Dolores Tan; Fe Non; Juliet Jaime; Leah Angelica Reyes and Chenly Rubio.
Also killed in the blast were Army Sgt. Mark Des Simbre; Corporals John Mangawait Jr. and Minard Jann Ocier; PFC Alizon Ayoman; Private Hernan Bulaybulay; and Coastguard SN2 Jaypee Galicha.
Col. Noel Detoyato, spokesman for the AFP, said a wounded victim inside the church saw a woman leave a bag on the fifth pew from the back. She left quickly seconds before the explosion, the witness said.
Detoyato also disputed the ISIS claim that it was a suicide attack.
“That is the method of deployment of IED, it was remotely detonated so that would dispel the reports that it was a suicide bombing,” Detoyato said.
Lorenzana admitted Tuesday there were security lapses that allowed the terrorists to sneak the bombs into the church, which was guarded by soldiers.
He said that while they were briefed to search everyone who entered the church, there could have been “a lapse in procedure.”
He also said there were bomb threats against churches in Jolo as early as August 2018, and that the cathedral was guarded by soldiers 24 hours a day.
READ: Jolo blasts: 20 dead, 81 hurt
Concern was growing Monday over the impact the bomb attack would have on a decades-long push for peace that culminated last week in voters approving expanded Muslim self-rule in the south.
The vote was the result of negotiations started in the 1990s with the nation’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and will give it considerable power over the so-called Bangsamoro region.
“This is a big challenge for the Bangsamoro government,” said Banlaoi.
READ: Rody changes tack, slams door to peace gab revival
The former rebels need to show they will be able to pull the region toward peace in order to attract much-needed investment to alleviate poverty and counter extremism, he said.
“MILF needs to prove it can make a difference... the gravity of the problem faced by MILF is wow, so overwhelming,” he added.
The church attack came despite the imposition of martial law in Mindanao after pro-ISIS militants seized the southern city of Marawi in May 2017.
Government officials have argued that martial rule, which gives authorities extra powers, has been effective in taming the perpetually restive region.
But families of the dead, who began holding funerals on Monday, have become the latest to mourn loved ones killed in a bomb attack.
“My 81-year-old mother does not deserve this kind of death,” Edward Non said, with a row of victims’ coffins behind him. “This has to stop. It’s the innocent civilians who suffer.”
Experts were also worried about how the bombing would hurt the hopes for new development in the region, which were spurred by the self-rule vote victory.
READ: Pope Francis, world leaders condemn attacks
“It’s a terrible human tragedy, it’s also a development tragedy,” World Bank economist Andrew Mason told broadcaster ABS-CBN.
“When we see conflict areas, when we see ups-and-downs and negative impacts due to violence and conflict, what we see is also these are development opportunities that are squandered.
READ: UN condemns Jolo bomb attacks
In the port city of Zamboanga, police shot and killed a member of the Abu Sayyaf.
Chief Insp. Elmer Solon, Police Station 11 chief, identified the slain ASG member as Mohamar Lungbos Hasilon alias Weng-Weng, 21.
Hasilon was killed in a shootout during a law enforcement operation around 9:21 p.m. Monday in Barangay Sto. Niño. With AFP, PNAREAD: ISIS owns up to Jolo blasts
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.