Philippine security forces killed three suspected would-be suicide bombers Tuesday, including two foreign nationals, on southern Jolo island where seven government troops were wounded in clashes with Islamic State-linked militants last week, officials said.
The three suspects were believed to be affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf unit of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, whom Philippine and American intelligence consider to be the new head of the Islamic State (IS) branch in the country.
The trio was on a “suicide bombing mission” and heading toward the central area of Jolo town when they were stopped at a security roadblock, and a shootout ensued leading to the casualties, according to the Philippine military’s southern command.
“The incident prompted the government forces to fire back, which caused the instantaneous death of the three terrorists,” the military said in a statement.
It said the slain foreign militants were allegedly “the husband and son of the foreign suicide bomber who attacked” a military post in the nearby town of Indanan in September, the statement said.
Authorities recovered from the slain militants pistols, a grenade and explosive vests identical to the vest used in the previous attack.
“The hostile plan of the terrorists in Sulu could have caused tremendous casualties and could have tarnished the image of this country if not immediately acted upon by our soldiers,” said Col. Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the local army brigade.
Two of the suspected bombers were Egyptians and the third was a Philippine member of Abu Sayyaf, ABN-CBN, a Philippine news website, quoted military officials as saying.
The shootout occurred days after troops who were on alert for “sympathy attacks” by local IS elements to avenge the Oct. 26 killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi clashed with militants on Jolo.
Members of the elite Joint Task Force Sulu launched the assault last week to prevent Sawadjaan from carrying out more attacks following the death of al-Baghdadi, who was killed when he detonated a suicide vest as U.S. Special Forces closed in on him during a raid in northwestern Syria. IS has since named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi as his successor.
Sawadjaan became head of the Philippine unit of IS after Isnilon Hapilon, another Abu Sayyaf commander and the IS chief in the country, was killed at the end of a five-month militant siege of Marawi city in the southern Philippines in 2017.
So far, Sawadjaan has been blamed for masterminding three deadly bombings on Jolo, including a suicide bomb attack by an Indonesian militant couple that killed 23 people at a church in late January.
“Our forces on the ground are relentlessly tracking down the location of the terrorists who were inflicted with undetermined casualties during our initial encounters last week,” said Maj. Arvin John Encinas, spokesman of Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) based in Zamboanga.
The troops from the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion encountered Sawadjaan and 30 of his followers in the jungles near Jolo’s remote Patikul town last Wednesday. The soldiers overran the encampment and were believed to have left several of Sawadjaan’s men wounded.
The rangers also recovered five improvised explosive devices (IEDs), preventing what could have been another wave of bombings, Encinas said.
Later that day, another gun battle erupted between troops and remnants of Sawadjaan’s group. Seven army Scout Rangers were wounded in the clash.
“All the soldiers who sustained slight injuries have been in stable condition and our operation in tracking them [have] continued,” Encinas said.
Encinas said troops were also monitoring the whereabouts of the Abu Sayyaf group casualties.
“Until now, we have not recovered any of their casualties,” he said.
According to Encinas, al-Baghdadi was not known to most of the Abu Sayyaf members “except for leaders like Sawadjaan who might conduct sabotage” operations.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is a small group of Islamic fighters who are known more for banditry than militancy. It burst onto the international scene in the late 1990s with a series of audacious kidnapping attacks, including cross-border raids into Malaysian resorts.
Abu Sayyaf had once allied itself with the Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, and also flirted with the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah militant group. When the two terror groups lost their influence, and the IS and its black flag rose to prominence in the Middle East, one faction of the Abu Sayyaf under Isnilon Hapilon became adherents.
Two years ago, Hapilon, aided by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters, took over Marawi in hopes of turning it into a regional caliphate. A five-month battle followed that left the city in ruins and killed over 1,200 fighters from both sides.
Military officials say that dozens of foreign fighters are believed to be in the Philippine south, and are trying to regroup.