In a visit to Jolo in the southern Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to eradicate Abu Sayyaf militants responsible for twin suicide bombings there last week that left 15 dead and scores wounded, as the military said the mastermind of the attack might still be on the island.
The president visited Jolo on Sunday, as security forces in the area went on lockdown to prevent further attacks, the presidential palace said. He said the Aug. 24 bombings only strengthened the government’s resolve to crush the Abu Sayyaf, whom he blamed for the “cowardly act.”
“As a Filipino, I am giving all my support you need to accomplish your mission here in Jolo. I commit myself to work with you, my dear troops, to ensure that these terrorists will have no future in this country,” Duterte told soldiers, according to a transcript of the speech released by his office on Monday.
Jolo is the capital of Sulu province, long a hotbed of Muslim militancy in this mostly Catholic nation.
Duterte also visited the blast sites where he offered prayers for fallen soldiers and civilian fatalities. The area was sealed off temporarily with heavy police and military security.
“Right now, our entire nation is dealing with the global health crisis yet enemies of the state will still find the energy to perpetuate the acts of violence and terrorism,” Duterte said. “Now more than ever our nation needs our Armed Forces to ensure that these terrorists will never succeed in their pointless goals,” he stressed.
The president also appealed to lawless elements to entertain peace to allow development in the province. He said that while the government would continue in its efforts to bring peace and development in the south, troops would also have to continue going after the militants.
“As of now, I cannot stop my soldiers because they have a mission and the mission is to crush the insurgents,” Duterte said.
His visit came a day after the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) said that the militant blamed for plotting the attack, Mundi Sawadjaan, and two young Indonesian “bomb experts” had managed to evade forces in Jolo and were believed to be en route to the nearby island of Basilan or the city of Zamboanga on the mainland.
NICA passed the report to Zamboanga city mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar who ordered tightened security in the area.
Citing the intelligence brief, she said Sawadjaan was travelling with Indonesian nationals Andi Baso and Reski Fantasya, also called Cici. The two “bomb experts” are a married couple, according to a notice issued by Joint-Task Force Zamboanga City and the city police force.
Sawadjaan is the nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the head of the Philippine branch of the Islamic State, who took over after the death of Isnilon Hapilon in October 2017. Hapilon was killed by security forces toward the end of a five-month battle with Islamic State-linked militants who had seized the southern city of Marawi earlier that year.
The military recently said that the elder Sawadjaan had been wounded in a recent encounter and may have died, but this has not been confirmed.
By Monday, however, the commander of the military’s Western Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga, Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., said the younger Sawadjaan and the two Indonesians were still in in Jolo.
“As of yesterday, they are still in Sulu. They were the group which our forces encountered there,” Vinluan said.
He was referring to a clash on Saturday between Scout Rangers and a 30-man Abu Sayyaf unit near the town of Patikul that left one soldier dead and seven others wounded. At least two Abu Sayyaf militants were also killed, according to intelligence reports from the ground.
The south has long, unguarded and often porous borders that have allowed militants to move from one site to another undetected.
In 2017, for example, government intelligence said that Hapilon was wounded in a clash somewhere in Basilan, only to be surprised when he reappeared in Marawi, leading its takeover.