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Was the Philippines cathedral bombing a suicide attack?

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, his defense minister Delfin Lorenzana and various security officials have given conflicting accounts of what happened at the church

Two explosions occurred while Mass was being celebrated the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo in Sulu province on Sunday, January 27, killing at least 21 people and injuring more than 100.

The remote island of Jolo is a stronghold for the militant Islamist Abu Sayyaf group. Formed in the 1990s, it operates as a network of factions.

Police, military and political figures have all blamed Abu Sayyaf for the bombing, with many pointing to a subgroup called Ajang-Ajang.

According to the Manila Times, Ajang-Ajang means “orphans” in Sulu’s Tausug language, and the group is made up of young people and children of Abu Sayyaf members led by Hatib Sawadjaan, the father-in-law of Amin Baco, a Malaysian suspected by some to be the leader of Islamic State East Asia.

Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, and in July 2018 the group became part of the newly declared Islamic State East Asia province. Hapilon was killed in 2017.

“Not all members of Ajang-Ajang group are pro-ISIS, but all of them are Abu Sayyaf group,” Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told the Manila Times. “It’s not IS-affiliated.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana blamed the attack on Sawadjaan, saying he has pledged allegiance to ISIS, AP reported on January 29.

Before Duterte’s comments

But although they agree on the likely perpetrators, the same people disagree on how the bombings were carried out, with some saying the devices were remotely detonated and others saying there may have been at least one suicide bomber, not least among them President Rodrigo Duterte.

Not long after the attack, Islamic State claimed fighters from its East Asia province affiliate carried out suicide bombings at the church. ISIS said that “two martyrs of the Islamic state carried out a double suicide attack.” The first detonated an explosive belt near the entrance to the church and the second detonated an explosive belt in the parking area.

But the sequence of events is not a perfect match for what appears to have happened, and precisely what occurred is unclear.

On the day of the attack, the AFP news agency reported that the second bomb, which detonated outside the church, was left in the utility box of a motorcycle, citing a military report.

AFP reported that security officials said on January 29 that one of the explosive devices was left inside the church by a woman and the other was hidden on a motorcycle outside.

Reuters reported that military and police officials said on January 29 that both bombs appeared to have been detonated remotely.

Two people wounded in the attack said a woman left a bag in a pew and left before the explosion, Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs chief Colonel Noel Detoyato said on January 29, ABS-CBN reported, noting that Detoyato said the witnesses could not accurately describe the woman.

“… it was remotely detonated so that will dispel [reports that it was a] suicide bombing,” Detoyato said.

The Manila Times reported Detoyato as saying that bomb was detonated by mobile phone.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines West Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) on January 29 released CCTV images of a suspect who they said was known as “Kamah, a known bombmaker and brother of the slain Abu-Sayyaf sub-leader Surakah Ingog.”

Kamah had a item in his hand that could have been used to detonate the bombs and ran from the church moments after the explosion along with several companions, WestMinCom spokesperson Colonel Gerry Besana said, ABS-CBN reported.

Duterte’s comments

Comments made by President Duterte on January 29 about suicide attacks seemed to contradict the earlier official statements, although the military was investigating the possibility it was a suicide bombing, according to a January 28 report by ABS-CBN.

The AFP news agency in a story headlined “‘Suicide bomber’ among Philippines blast suspects: Dutertereported:

Duterte told reporters a woman who remains at large left a device that exploded during mass at the cathedral in the remote Muslim-majority island of Jolo on Sunday, and her husband later blew himself up outside.

The president’s account differed from earlier statements by security officials.

He said military intelligence told him Tuesday the second bomb was strapped on to the body of the male suspect who detonated it as survivors of the first explosion ran for their lives.

“They (investigators) could not find any part of the body because it exploded, because that was terrorism and that was a suicide,” the president said.

Reuters reported Duterte as saying the explosions may have been a suicide attack, according to the briefing he had received earlier.

“It exploded. That is terrorism and suicide. You cannot carry plastic bags, you will be questioned by the military, police when you have backpack,” Duterte said when asked by reporters to clarify an earlier remark.

He added: “But you could see all around bits and pieces of flesh. We even stepped on it.”

Phillipine news site Rappler went much further in a story headlined “Duterte says wife, husband suicide bombers behind Jolo bombing,reporting:

“Either he was just passing by before blowing himself up. Ang problema kasi, yung babae was wearing a cross pa eh. Malaking cross sa dibdib niya eh,” said the President.

(Either he was just passing by before blowing himself up. The problem was the woman was wearing a cross. It was a big cross on her chest.)

Asked if he was thus confirming it was a case of suicide bombing, he said, “Yes, blowing them up. Babae. Lalaki yung isa, mag-asawa (One was a man, they were a couple).”

Told that some military officers were denying the bombing was the work of suicide bombers, Duterte said it was possible that the man detonated the bomb remotely.

“Yes, that’s a possibility. But the eyewitnesses said it’s the other way around. May kasama siguro, may support system (They had companions, a support system, maybe),” said Duterte.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later appeared to at least partially support Duterte’s comments.

“The first bomb that exploded inside the church was apparently left behind by a certain woman. This is according to the hazy recollection of a survivor sitting four pews behind the explosion,” Lorenzana told reporters in a text message, The Manila Times reported.

“The second [bomb] that exploded at the entrance about a minute and a half after may have been a suicide bomber as indicated by body parts strewn all over including half a face and neck and two feet,” Lorenzana said.

“It is more likely that the second bomb was caused by a suicide bomber,” he added.

On January 30, Lorenzana said the second explosion was “probably” a suicide bombing, but that it was not clear if ISIS was responsible, because it had not yet revealed the bomber’s identity, Reuters reported.

“The final conclusion is not there yet. It’s still being investigated,” Lorenzana said, AFP reported.

To this interested observer it’s as clear as mud.

But denial, downplaying attacks and misinformation is not unusual for the Philippines:

Misinformation and intelligence failures: How the Philippines underestimates ISIS

Update February 1 Philippines Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said a husband and wife team of Indonesian suicide bombers linked to Islamic State were behind the cathedral bombing, emphasizing that this information has yet to be verified, Rappler reported.

“Ang talagang nagpasabog doon ay Indonesian suicide bombers [Those behind the bombings are Indonesian suicide bombers],” he said.

“Hindi pa tapos yung ginagawang investigation but I have sources na itong pagsabog ay project ng Abu Sayyaf at itong foreign terrorist na related sa ISIS (Islamic State group) [The investigation is not over but I have sources who said the bombing was a project of Abu Sayyaf and this foreign terrorist related to ISIS.],” he later told reporters.

“The Lamitan, Basilan bombing and the Jolo cathedral bombing, they are connected. Itong nagpaputok sa Basilan, si Abu Kathir Al-Maghribi, galing ‘yan sa Jolo, sa Sulu. Bumaba lang ‘yan, pumunta lang ‘yan saBasilan before the bombing [The one behind the explosion in Basilan, Abu Kathir Al-Maghribi, came from Jolo, in Sulu. He just went to Basilan before the bombing.],” he said.

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