The twin bombings that killed at least 20 people and injured more than 100 others during Sunday Mass at Jolo Cathedral in the southern Philippines was the country’s largest mass-casualty terrorist attack in 19 years.
It came at a time of much optimism and hope in the Philippine south. Just six days earlier, the Philippines had concluded a successful southern plebiscite on fully implementing regional autonomy for Muslims, through ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
Five of six provinces and cities overwhelmingly voted for being included in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Only the capital of Basilan province, Isabela City, voted to stay out.
Most crucially, the city of Cotabato voted overwhelmingly for inclusion, an important sign that Christians felt that there was political space for them in the new BARMM region, and the BARMM government would protect their rights. The city is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. It was an important symbolic victory.
Overall, the plebiscite was peaceful, though there was with sporadic violence. Some complained of intimidation by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces, but these tended to be isolated and not widespread enough to call the results of the referendum into question.
Although central Islamic State media claimed responsibility for the attacks, the bombings were most likely the work of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has been active through the Sulu Archipelago through engaging in ambushes of security forces, kidnappings for ransom, and bombings. While their kidnapping sprees tend to be opportunistic, their terrorist attacks are sectarian in focus. The cathedral in Jolo had been attacked some 10 separate times since 2000.
The Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-2014, but many saw that simply as a rebranding exercise, which would not lead to significant changes in their activities. But the mid-2017 siege of Marawi city by the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, demonstrated their reach and lethality.
While Mindanao will continue to attract foreign militant fighters – because it is the only place in Southeast Asia where extremists can control physical space, or at least has enough ungoverned space for them to operate freely – the cathedral bombings will draw foreign militants directly into the Abu Sayyaf’s orbit as the group most able and willing to engage in the Islamic State’s global insurgency.
Expect more violence
The Abu Sayyaf are not the only spoilers.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) broke away from MILF in 2007 when the peace process faltered. BIFF has continued to cause instability in central Mindanao, and, in the run-up to the Jan. 21 plebiscite, Philippine authorities suspected the group of detonating a bomb outside a Cotabato mall that killed two people and wounded over 30 others.
The Mautes are still showing signs of regrouping in the Lanao del Sur region. Although three Maute members were killed in a firefight after the plebiscite, they have remained stubbornly resilient and able to capitalize on public frustration with the government’s slow reconstruction of Marawi, where tens of thousands of residents remain displaced after the battle in 2017.
On Feb. 6, there will be a second round of the plebiscite for towns abutting the six provinces and cities that already voted on BOL’s ratification. And we should anticipate that the spoilers will increase the number of attacks in an attempt to discredit the peace process and intimidate voters from supporting it.
The passage of the BOL and its successful implementation proves a serious threat to these three revanchist organizations. So much of their ideology and public appeal is that they have resisted “imperial Manila,” which has colonized Muslim lands in the south and turned the Islamic population there into a minority through a sustained campaign of Christian migration.
The establishment of an autonomous government, which would have significant control over natural resources, fiscal and financial affairs, along with a tiered Sharia court system and a new regional parliament, undermines their narrative.
Their continued attacks will necessitate the prolonged presence of government security forces. This will reinforce their argument that autonomy is meaningless, that southern Muslims are still under colonial occupation. The human rights abuses that are frequently committed by security forces, including the use of indirect artillery fire into civilian communities, will reinforce that narrative.
Policing the south
And the issue of internal policing is a very sensitive one.
In the original peace agreement concluded in 2014, the MILF was to be in charge of internal policing, with their combatants largely switching over to constabulary responsibilities. After the January 2015 Mamasapano incident, a clash between MILF fighters and the Philippine National Police that led to the deaths of 44 PNP scout rangers, there was no congressional support for the MILF to have any internal security role.
The MILF agreed to demobilize their forces and surrender some weaponry. At the same time, some of their members will have the opportunity to be integrated into both the armed forces and national police; but both remain under a national chain of command, not responsible to BARMM’s government.
And yet, the onus will still fall on the MILF to be responsible for peace and security within the BARMM. One of their key arguments, when they were trying to sell the peace process to reluctant Philippine lawmakers, was that only they had the local intelligence and will to crack down on pro-Islamic State militants.
With attacks such as the Jolo cathedral bombings, the MILF will be under intense pressure to deliver on those promises. Public condemnation is necessary but insufficient.
The peace process is near to being implemented, with a new governing structure and regional parliamentary elections to be held in the next six months.
The promise of peace in the southern Philippines has never been closer. Yet the deaths of at least 20 people in a single coordinated bombing shows just how fragile the peace process is, and the degree to which those who oppose it will actively seek to undermine its implementation.
Visiting the bomb site, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to “crush” the Abu Sayyaf; something the Armed Forces of the Philippines have failed to do in nearly 30 years. They are unlikely to do so now. The successful implementation of the BARMM remains the greatest challenge to militants and spoilers of the peace process.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.