Security forces foiled an alleged plot to bomb a Catholic cathedral in Basilan province in the southern Philippines and arrested two suspected Abu Sayyaf militants tasked with carrying out the attack, police said Thursday.
Joint police and military forces launched the operation Tuesday based on an intelligence report that an Islamic State-linked faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was planning to attack the church in the predominantly Muslim province.
“They were arrested in their hideout in the village of Menzi, barely a few kilometers from downtown Isabela City,” regional police chief Brig. Gen. Froilan Quidilla said.
Police combat troops from the Special Action Force and the criminal investigation group were backed by a military bomb squad during the raid, Quidilla said. They recovered explosive materials, including more than 3 kilos (6.6 pounds) of assorted nails, blasting caps, 1.5-volt batteries, and wires.
The arrested suspects, identified as Muzrim Illahan and Kadir Ajanal, are both followers of Furuji Indama, the Abu Sayyaf’s overall leader on the island and a protege of Isnilon Hapilon, police said.
Hapilon was an Abu Sayyaf commander who was the known Southeast Asian commander of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). He was killed in October 2017 after leading hundreds of foreign and local militants in a five-month siege of southern Marawi city.
The two suspects in custody confessed that they were instructed to carry out the bombing last month, but did not push through with the plan due to tight security, the police chief said, adding that they were being interrogated about another possible bomb plot.
It was not clear immediately clear whether the suspects had any links with militants under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a senior Abu Sayyaf militant who is believed to have replaced Hapilon as the regional leader of IS.
Sawadjaan masterminded a twin bombing at a church on southern Jolo island in January 2019 that left more than 20 people dead and was carried out by Indonesian suicide bombers, Philippine authorities said.
The arrests of the pair of Abu Sayyaf suspects came a on the eve of the rescue of Indonesian fisherman Muhammad Farhan, 27, weeks after two of his compatriots were rescued from the militant group’s custody in southern Sulu province.
The rescue was a “remarkable accomplishment,” said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of military forces under the Western Mindanao Command.
“This proves that our sustained rescue efforts and security operations to run down and degrade ASG have been effective,” Sobejana said.