A senior Abu Sayyaf militant wanted for planning the double suicide bombing attacks that left 15 dead in the southern Philippine island of Jolo has escaped along with two young Indonesian “bomb experts,” officials said Saturday.
Details of how Mundi Sawadjaan and two others managed to get off the island despite a manhunt were not released, but they were believed to be headed either to Zamboanga city on the mainland or to the nearby island of Basilan, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said.
Salazar is the regional chairperson of the Peace and Order Council in Zamboanga, and the report was given to her by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), she said.
“We have to increase our alert status because we were given information from NICA regional director Ariel Perlado that the suicide bombers in Jolo have escaped and are posing a terror threat in Zamboanga peninsula,” Salazar told a virtual news conference.
Mundi Sawadjaan was travelling with Indonesian nationals Andi Baso and Reski Fantasya, also called Cici, the intelligence brief said. The two “bomb experts” are a married couple, according to a notice issued by Joint-Task Force Zamboanga City and the city police force.
Baso, believed to be between 17 and 25 years old, is a suspect in the Aug. 24 bombing in Jolo that killed 15, including two female suicide bombers, and wounded scores more, it said.
His wife, between 17 and 22, is wanted in connection with the suicide bombing on Jan. 27, 2019 at a cathedral on Jolo Island that killed 23 and injured more than 100, the notice said.
Andi Baso is the son-in-law of the Indonesian couple who carried out that attack, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the former counter-terror chief of Malaysia, told BenarNews in Aug. 2019, explaining that Indonesians based in Sabah, Malaysia helped the trio travel to the Philippines.
Mundi Sawadjaan, meanwhile, is thought to be the nephew of Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who is the leader of the Islamic State branch in the Philippines.
Mundi Sawadjaan allegedly orchestrated the bombings in a busy area of Jolo town last week, deploying two female suicide bombers – the widows of militants who blew themselves up last year.
Sabah has tightened its borders to prevent Abu Sayyaf Group militants from entering its territory in search of “safe haven” in the wake of the latest bombings, the police chief in the Malaysian Borneo state told BenarNews.
Public asked to be on the lookout
The armed forces’ Joint Task Force Zamboanga commander, Col. John Antonio Divinagracia, confirmed the report cited by the Zamboanga mayor, but said further vetting was needed.
“The information remained to be raw and we are verifying it from our counterparts in Sulu and Basilan,” Divinagracia said, referring to the island near Zamboanga city that is also a hotbed of Abu Sayyaf militancy.
It is believed that at least three other potential female suicide bombers are at large in the southern Philippines, according to Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think-tank.
“[They are] two Indonesians, daughters of the Jolo Cathedral bombers, and one Egyptian, the daughter of a female Egyptian bomber who died in September 2019,” Banlaoi told BenarNews last week.
The two women who carried out Monday’s attacks were each paid at least 3 million Philippine pesos (U.S. $61,750) ahead of the twin bombings, said Mimi Fabe, professor of financial terrorism and transnational organized crime at the Philippine National Police College.
It was the latest suicide bombing in the mostly Catholic Philippines, where analysts said the terror tactic was new but on the rise.
In July 2018, a suicide bomb attack carried out by a foreign national believed to be of Moroccan at a military checkpoint on Basilan descent killed 11, including the attacker.
Salazar, the Zamboanga mayor, placed the coast guard and the navy on tight monitoring at nearby coastlines to prevent the entry of the trio.
“Whether it’s a vehicle attack or suicide bomber, we’re asking our security forces down to the Barangay to be on alert so that we will be able to prevent, preempt and deter acts of terrorism in our areas of jurisdiction,” Salazar said, adding that the city government was offering a reward of three million pesos (about U.S. $62,000) for information leading to the arrest of the suspects.
Armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said the suspects in last week’s bombing have been "the subject of intense intelligence gathering and monitoring."
"Terrorism remains a threat to any democracy," he said Saturday, appealing to the public to help the military in securing borders. "Everyone should be aware of their surroundings and report all suspicious persons, doubtful activities and left-behind personal belongings while remaining vigilant at all times."