Indonesian police on Tuesday identified a married couple who they believe perpetrated a suicide bombing that killed 23 people at a church in the southern Philippines in January.
Authorities established the identities of the two after interrogating a pair of suspected members of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local militant group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, following their recent arrests, national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said.
“The two Indonesians, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, are believed to have carried out the suicide bombings in the Philippines,” Dedi said during a news conference, adding that the Indonesian couple had entered the Philippines illegally.
The announcement marked the first time that the names of the suspected bombers was made public in the neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
The married couple were deported from Turkey in 2017 after they allegedly tried to cross its border to enter IS-controlled territory in Syria, Dedi said. He revealed their names while briefing journalists on latest information gathered by police from their investigation into the IS network in Indonesia.
The Jan. 27 twin bombings at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in the Philippines, was one of the worst terrorist acts to strike that country in years. The explosions, which also injured more than 100 people, took almost a year of planning, Philippine authorities said.
Suspects who were earlier arrested by Philippine authorities after the bombings had revealed that the bombers were Indonesian, but the couple’s identity could not be established then, Dedi told reporters in Jakarta.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta think-tank, said Rullie and Ulfah left to join IS via Turkey in March 2016, taking with them their three children, but Turkish authorities caught them in January 2017 and deported them back to Indonesia.
“They underwent a short rehabilitation program and were allowed to go home,” Jones said.
Dedi said that a JAD suspect, identified as Novendri, who was arrested in West Sumatra province last week, was assembling bombs to be used in planned attacks on Indonesia’s Independence Day on Aug. 17.
Novendri’s targets would have included police stations in the provincial capital Padang and other areas in West Sumatra, he said.
“He is connected to JAD in other Indonesian regions and overseas,” Dedi said, adding that police were hunting other suspected plotters.
The other JAD suspect, identified as Yoga, was arrested in June in Malaysia and had been tasked with establishing a liaison between JAD and pro-IS militants in the Philippines, Dedi said.
Dedi said Novendri and Yoga acted at the behest of a wanted militant named Saefullah (alias Chaniago), who police believe is currently in Khorasan, Afghanistan.
Saefullah has received money transfers totaling 413 million rupiah ($29,500) via Western Union from countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Maldives and Germany, the spokesman said.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, has been hit by a spate of terrorist attacks, more recently carried out by JAD militants.
Last year, two families carried out suicide bombings at three churches and a police station in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city and the capital of East Java province.
Two adults and their son were also killed when the bomb they were planning to use for a terror attack exploded inside their apartment in nearby Sidoarjo regency, police said.
Authorities said 29 people were killed, including 13 of the suspects who used their children as young as 9 in carrying out the bomb attacks.
Abu Sayyaf leader suspected
In the Philippines, authorities blamed Abu Sayyaf senior leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan for masterminding the Jolo church attack.
Little is known about Sawadjaan, except that he is a senior member of the group, which in the early 2000s was known to have joined in the planning and carrying out of kidnap-for-ransom raids.
The church attack happened five months after a German of Moroccan descent drove a car packed with explosives through a checkpoint on Basilan island, killing 11 people.
On June 28, two IS-linked suicide bombers also detonated explosives while trying to enter a military camp on Jolo island, killing themselves and six people. Philippine authorities identified one of the two attackers as a 23-year-old Filipino named Norman Lasuca, the first local suicide bomber.
Sawadjaan replaced Isnilon Hapilon as the IS head in the region, after the latter was killed two years ago near the end of the five-month siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
Mindanao has been under martial law since the Marawi siege that killed more than 1,200 people, most of them militants. Security officials have not lifted the order to allow troops to pursue militant stragglers who are believed trying to regroup.
Several foreign militants are believed seeking shelter in deep jungle areas and hinterlands in Mindanao, where they are trying to regroup and recruit young Filipinos to joint their movement, the military said.
On Tuesday, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said he would recommend a martial law extension for another year due to a sustained rebellion in the region.
“We don’t have a problem in terms of abiding but there are some terrorists. So, we also must improve our deployment of technical equipment,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the commander of the Western Mindanao Forces based in Zamboanga, said Sawadjaan’s group could be coddling several other foreign bombers.
He said operations to get the foreigners were ongoing, but declined to elaborate because it may compromise military tactics.
He said they had been continuously working along with their U.S. counterparts to identify the second suicide bomber in the latest attack on Jolo.
“All remedies are being done by our concerned agencies to establish as to who really was the second bomber,” Sobejana said.
“We are working closely and continuously conducting the matching of the DNA among the other members of the terror group involved in the previous bombing incidents,” Sobejana said.
Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.