Bombshell conspiracies in the Philippines
By Shawn W Crispin and Joel D Adriano
MANILA - A spate of deadly bombings has rocked stability in the Philippines,
setting off conspiracy theories about whether Muslim rebels, internationally
linked terrorists or President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government are behind
the mysterious attacks.
No group has taken responsibility for the fatal blasts. Nonetheless, security
forces have been put on heightened alert across the archipelago, raising fears
that Arroyo may soon declare martial law or a state of emergency to defuse the
crisis, a move that would potentially extend her hold on power beyond her
legally circumscribed six-year term.
Bombings last week in Cotabato City, Iligan and Jolo, all on the southern
island of Mindanao, killed 12 people and wounded nearly
100 more. In the previous weeks, a bomb exploded at the Office of the Ombudsman
in Manila and plots against other government offices, including the Department
of Agriculture, and a private condominium in the capital, were foiled by
sleuthing security forces, according to a government source.
Government officials have offered conflicting explanations for the bombs. The
military was quick to pin blame to the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (MILF), which it has battled since a peace-for-autonomy deal came
unraveled last August. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff
General Victor Ibrado hinted that the bombings may have been "test missions"
carried out by rebels who had recently completed bomb-making training.
The AFP says that the MILF have staged 38 bomb attacks this year and that bomb
fragments recovered from some of last week's attack sites bore the hallmarks of
previous MILF attacks. Task Force Comet head Major General Juancho Sabban
claimed that regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) had recently trained
both MILF and the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terror group in bomb-making
techniques, insinuating one or the either was responsible for the recent
However, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales asserted that the Manila
attacks were carried out by a different group with different motives and were
likely unrelated to the Mindanao bombings. He called on the military not to
reflexively blame the MILF without substantiating evidence and worried that the
accusations would stall the resumption of peace talks. Gonzales insisted that
the bombings would not compel Arroyo to declare a state of emergency.
MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu denied any involvement, saying that his
secessionist group had nothing to gain from killing civilians and terrorizing
their own communities. He countered the accusations against his group by noting
that the military had the greater capability to detonate such explosives.
Others, including former top government officials, have pointed more directly
at Arroyo and her political allies.
Former House speaker Jose de Venecia has claimed publicly that the bombs are
part of a broad destabilizing plot to justify the declaration of martial law
and suspension of democracy, including potentially democratic polls scheduled
for next year in which Arroyo is barred by constitutional term limits from
A former Arroyo ally, de Venecia claimed such a plot was earlier discussed by
administration insiders and he likened the bombings to the instability former
dictator Ferdinand Marcos manufactured to justify imposing martial law in 1972,
the year before he was constitutionally required to relinquish power.
Marcos' ploy included mysterious bombings in Manila and a climactic mock
assassination attempt against his defense minister, which was blamed on
communist rebels and put forward as justification for suspending democracy.
Martial law allowed Marcos to dodge similar legal term limits and maintain an
iron grip on power until 1986, when he was finally overthrown in a popular
Arroyo's supporters have been keen to amend the constitution in ways that would
allow her to extend her term in the capacity of prime minister rather than
president. Her congressional supporters have stated their intention to form a
constituent assembly towards that end. But a move towards martial law, her
critics argue, would allow Arroyo to steer that legal process without
congressional resistance in the opposition-led senate.
Under secretary of Justice and Anti-Terrorism Council spokesman Ricardo
Blancaflor, in an interview with Asia Times Online, countered that conspiracy
theory with one of his own by drawing parallels to the recent bombings with
those foiled in Manila, including at the Department of Defense, in the
aftermath of the contested 2004 general elections which Arroyo won under a
cloud of vote-rigging allegations.
Blancaflor said the attempted 2004 bombings were found to be orchestrated by
"anti-administration people outside of mainstream politics" and that a similar
"political force" was likely behind the recent "bombs-for-show". He said the
government had no intention to invoke martial law or a state of emergency, but
was angling to pursue the bombers with the "full force" of anti-terrorism
legislation, which allows for especially harsh convictions if attacks are ruled
to have specifically targeted the government.
Allied budget cut
The legal distinction, some analysts say, could be diplomatically motivated.
The mysterious bombings in Mindanao detonated just days before a highly
anticipated visit to Manila by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director
Leon Panetta. Eduardo Ermita, Arroyo's chief aide, told reporters Panetta's
visit was to reaffirm Washington's commitment to one of its Southeast Asian
Since December 2000 and including last week's attacks, 671 Filipinos have been
killed in terrorism-related bombings, including 116 victims in a 2004 bomb
attack against a passenger ferry orchestrated by the Abu Sayyaf, according to
official statistics. Despite those fatalities, Blancaflor insists the
Philippines is winning its version of the war on terror and could further
consolidate those gains with more US assistance, including more technology
transfers in computer-driven forensics, fingerprinting and bomb security.
He told ATol his agents upended bomb plots, which allegedly included terror
operatives from Malaysia, to target three different Manila-situated shopping
malls last December. Since the 9/11 attacks against the US, Blancaflor proudly
notes, that the Philippines has won 46 terrorism-related convictions while the
US has only notched six in its worldwide campaign.
Previous US president George W Bush designated Southeast Asia as the "second
front" in his global "war on terror" campaign and US financial assistance to
the AFP surged by hundreds of millions of dollars to help combat Abu Sayyaf
rebels, which Washington linked to al-Qaeda's global terror network. US
soldiers are legally banned from combat in the Philippines, but have provided
training and logistical support in offensives against Abu Sayyaf.
It's unclear, however, whether President Barack Obama will put the same
emphasis and resources towards the task. The threat perception will have
lowered in Washington as Manila's focus shifts towards the long time
secessionist MILF and communist New People's Army, and away from the more
clearly terrorism-linked Abu Sayyaf.
In a sign of the rebel group's apparent growing desperation and diminished
firepower, Abu Sayyaf members kidnapped three Red Cross workers in January and
over the weekend released the last Italian captive in a suspected prisoner-swap
negotiation with the government.
There had been widespread speculation in the local media that Obama had until
now side-stepped overtures by Arroyo to arrange a symbolic one-on-one meeting.
The two leaders are now scheduled to meet at the White House on July 30 to
discuss fighting terrorism and global warming. "We don't see a change coming in
US-Philippine counter-terrorism cooperation," said Blancaflor. "We don't think
the American people will turn their backs on the rest of the world."
Yet at least one counter-terrorism official based in Mindanao, who requested
anonymity, said his unit was already bracing for a possible cut in US financial
assistance under Obama's cash-strapped administration. Whether fears of
potential US budget cuts played any role in the recent rounds of bombings is
yet another conspiracy theory making the rounds in Manila and Mindanao.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor and reported
from Manila and Mindanao. Joel D Adriano is a Manila-based independent
consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the
business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe
Democracy and People's Tonight.