Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said the two explosions that killed 21 people at a Catholic church on the southern island of Jolo were the handiwork of suicide bombers, contradicting statements from military officials.
Duterte said he received a briefing from security officials that the attacks were carried out by a man and a woman who appeared to be a couple.
He said the man blew himself up outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Sunday, while the woman carried out the explosion inside the church.
“There was no reason for him to be frisked. Either he was passing by before blowing himself up,” Duterte said at a government function in Manila, referring to the male bomber. “The woman was wearing a big cross, who would ever think?”
Pressed by reporters whether he thought that the incident was a “suicide bombing,” Duterte said: “Yes.”
“That is really terrorism and that is suicide,” said Duterte, who visited the cathedral Monday with defense and military officials. “You could see all around bits and pieces of flesh.”
His statement ran counter to an earlier statement Tuesday by the military, which specifically ruled out “suicide bombing” on the attack that wounded 111. A high-school student died Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 21.
The attack, condemned by world leaders, came barely a week after the predominantly Roman Catholic nation ratified a law that granted autonomy to the country’s Muslims in the south.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the account of the woman bomber was based on the “hazy recollection” by a survivor who sat a few pews behind where the bomb exploded.
“The second bomb that exploded at the entrance about a minute and a half after may have been a suicide bomber, as indicated by body parts strewn all over, including half a face, a neck and two feet,” Lorenzana said, adding that the identity of that person was being determined.
‘It looks like it wasn’t a suicide bombing’
Duterte’s statement caused further confusion, as regional military spokesman Col. Gerry Besana earlier released pictures of the suspects, identified by military intelligence officials as members of a local armed group allied to the extremist Abu Sayyaf.
He ruled out the theory that the church attack was carried out by suicide bombers, and contradicted claims the bombings were the handiwork of the Islamic State (IS).
“We found out the bomb signature. And the CCTV footage itself provided that the instance when the one who triggered the bomb is there, it’s really 100 percent now that the bomb was remotely detonated,” Besana said.
He said one of several men caught on camera was known as Kamah, a local bomb expert and a brother of little-known Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Surakah Ingog. Kamah was seen tinkering with a mobile phone that could have been used to trigger the explosion.
“Moments before the blast, they were seen running from the area,” Besana said.
“It looks like it wasn’t a suicide bombing,” he said, adding that the first bomb inside the church was left by a woman.
The first bomb detonated during Mass and the second blast followed in a parking lot as soldiers responded. The attack was the most brazen in recent years and came at a time when thousands of troops had been deployed to Jolo to crush the militants.
Shortly after the incident, the SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups, reported that the IS East Asia Province had issued a statement claiming responsibility.
Duterte had ordered a massive offensive to “destroy” the Abu Sayyaf he blames for the attacks.
“I’m ordering you now – destroy the Abu Sayyaf by whatever means,” Duterte said in Jolo, according to a statement issued by the presidential palace Tuesday.
He told the military to bomb known territories and areas of the Abu Sayyaf in the rugged Jolo island, where Muslim militants had operated a guerrilla base for years, defeating previous military efforts to crush them.
Duterte said the public must be told in advance of any military strikes, so they can move away to safety. “Then you flatten it with bullets,” he said.
US assures backing
U.S. envoy Sung Kim assured the military on Monday of Washington’s support in going after the militants responsible for the explosions.
“My deepest sympathies for the tragic loss of life in Jolo,” Kim said. “We condemn this senseless violence and we will do everything possible to support the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”
The United States, along with Australia, provided crucial intelligence help to its Philippine counterparts in 2017 as government troops fought to defeat IS-linked militants led by Isnilon Hapilon who took over the city of Marawi.
Hapilon was a senior Abu Sayyaf leader who pledged allegiance to the IS, and he led an enemy force that included Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters. He died in October 2017, five months after militants launched the siege that destroyed Marawi.
Richard Javad Heydarian, political analyst at Manila’s De La Salle University who has been following Muslim rebel movements in the south, said the attack appeared to have been carefully weighed to cause maximum damage.
“It’s important to underscore that the attack took place in Sulu, the only place so far where the new autonomous region was handily rejected,” he said.
“The targeting of a church during a Sunday Mass was clearly a calculated attempt to sow not only terror but also inter-religious strife, as well as put into question safety of minority groups in the area,” he said.
It was also meant to show that the Abu Sayyaf, despite claims by the government that its numbers have been depleted, is capable of mounting attacks in the south, where martial law has been in effect during the past two years.
“The attack on government troops also shows a direct challenge to martial law and credibility of security forces in shepherding political transition in Mindanao,” Heydarian said.
The explosions have the “hallmarks of IS-affiliated groups,” he said. “They are more than eager to prove their resilience and that they’re still alive and kicking following liberation of Marawi.”
Meanwhile, members of the UN Security Council condemned the church bombings as it offered condolences to the victims’ families.
The council reaffirmed that terrorism constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.
“The members of the Security Council underlined the need to hold perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism accountable and bring them to justice,” it said in a statement.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao and Nonoy Espina in Bacolod contributed to this report.