Southeast Asiaterrorism

Islamic State blasts back in the Philippines

Back-to-back lethal bombings in southern Mindanao island's Isulan town aim to stir communal tensions and could prompt an extension of martial law

Mindanao, September 4, 2018 5:13 PM (UTC+8)
A Philippine soldier is seen through a hole in a wall of a damaged building in the Islamic State sieged city of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao, August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

In the span of a week, two deadly explosions rocked the same town on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, killing a total of five people in an attack the military has blamed on the rebel Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The homegrown militant group has recently emerged as Islamic State’s top aligned fighting force in the Philippines. The attacks have kindled fears the militant group could be softening the ground for a new major assault after last year’s foreign fighter-backed, five-month devastating siege of the city of Marawi.

Sunday night’s powerful bomb blast tore through an internet café, killed two youth and injured 12 others in Isulan town, the capital of Mindanao’s Sultan Kudarat province.

On August 28, another lethal blast at a night market killed three and wounded 36 others in the same town. The attack symbolically coincided with Isulan’s usually festive foundation day celebrations.

Regional military commander Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana claimed the BIFF faction under commander Bongos carried out the August 28 attack; the second was attributed to a BIFF faction operationally led by militant Abu Turaife. Islamic cleric Ustadz Karialan heads a third BIFF faction the military sees as comparatively “moderate.”

The second attack prompted the military to place the entire town under lockdown in a bid to identify and apprehend the suspected bomber who was still at large as of September 4.

A police investigator (L) gathers evidence at the site of a bomb blast in Isulan town on the southern island of Mindanao, August 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Sobejena said the deadly bomb attacks were likely retaliation for recent military operations launched against the BIFF, resulting he claimed in the death of at least 40 Islamic militants so far this year. Asia Times could not independently verify the death figure.

Security analysts had earlier predicted the BIFF would likely emerge from the ashes of last year’s siege of Marawi, a battle that left the town’s core in rubble and displaced over 350,000 civilian residents. An estimated 1,100, mostly Islamic militants, were killed in the urban warfare.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law on May 23 last year in response to the siege, then led by the Islamic State-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.

Congress later extended the martial order, which includes curfews and the suspension of other civil liberties, until the end of the year upon Duterte’s request. Top administration figures are now debating whether to extend martial law into 2019 in response to the recent lethal bombings.

At the same time, terror risks are rising, experts say. Rommel Banlaoi, chairperson of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the BIFF’s three main factions “are now uniting under the influence of the Islamic State.”

He said the bomb attacks in Sultan Kudarat province prove that Islamic State remains a clear and present danger not only in Mindanao but across the entire Philippines.

“ISIS is down, but not defeated,” said Banlaoi, referring to last year’s unsuccessful bid by Islamic militants to establish a caliphate in Marawi, similar to the geographies Islamic State carved out in Syria and Iraq.

The security analyst claimed that the BIFF has recently received financial support from Islamic State to carry out new terror activities in the country. The militants’ shadowy tactics aim to goad security forces into overreacting in ways that erode trust among the local population, he said.

Pax Mangudatu, the Muslim governor of Sultan Kudarat province where Christians outnumber Muslims, had offered a one million peso bounty (US$18,673) for any information leading to the arrest of the bomber responsible for the first attack.

Christians composed more than 60% of the 812,000 plus population of Sultan Kudarat province, which lies next to Maguindanao province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). An artist sketch based on CCTV footage near the bombing site has been released to the public.

If the bombings aimed to spark communal tensions and suspicions, it’s not immediately clear they hit their mark. Catholic Church leaders expressed outrage over the twin deadly attacks, which they have stressed have no place in civilized society and without blaming Islamic radicals.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Mindanao’s first and only Catholic bishop, said in a public statement after the bombings that “religion is distorted in order to commit brazen crimes that cry out to heaven.”

Soldiers stand guard with pro-Islamic State graffiti in the background during last year’s siege of Marawi City, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

He stressed that true believers in God are crying out in outrage at the terrorist bombings in the town of Isulan, noting that “all religions are religions of peace.”

The cardinal urged the military and government peace mediators, in collaboration with the ceasefire Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) rebel groups, to flush out the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

The MILF broke away from the MNLF in the late 1970s, but both have signed separate peace agreements with the Philippine government in Manila. The BIFF broke away from the MILF in recent years after it opted for greater autonomy rather than creating an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s peace panel chair, believed the deadly bomb attacks in Isulan town are part of a BIFF plan to derail peace efforts in Mindanao.

A Filipino soldier patrols a neighborhood where evacuees from Marawi City are temporarily living in Iligan City, June 16, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“Spoilers of peace are intensifying their acts to derail the dawning of peace in Mindanao,” Iqbal said in a statement. He urged the public to support the newly enacted Bangsamoro Basic Law, which serves as the cornerstone of an autonomy-granting peace deal it has with the government.

That peace isn’t immediately in sight, however. The local government cancelled school classes at all levels on Monday to allow the police and the military to investigate the deadly blasts, said Isulan Mayor Marites Pallasigue.

Philippine National Police Director General Oscar Albayalde, meanwhile, relieved top local police officials in Isulan town following the second blast.

Albayalde vowed to hold those responsible for the “cowardly act” accountable, a task that will test the mettle of state security forces as Islamic State-aligned militants appear to be shifting from conventional to more unpredictable terror tactics.

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