Philippines Launches Offensive against Militants on Jolo

Ben Hajan and Jeoffrey Maitem
Zamboanga and Cotabato, Philippines
190130-PH-mosque-dead-1000.jpg Investigators check the bodies of two men who died in a grenade blast at a mosque in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, Jan. 30, 2019.
[HO/Philippine National Police]

The Philippine military launched air and artillery assaults Wednesday against Abu Sayyaf militant hideouts in the jungles of southern Jolo island, three days after bombs killed 21 people and injured scores more at a local church, officials said.

Also on Wednesday, a grenade explosion ripped through a Muslim mosque in the nearby city of Zamboanga, killing two men. The Philippine defense secretary said the attack likely was unrelated to the twin bombings that targeted the cathedral in Jolo town during Sunday Mass.

From a military camp on the island, the Philippine Army’s Alpha Battery 8th Field Artillery Battalion fired canons targeting suspected jungle lairs of the Abu Sayyaf, authorities said.

“We are utilizing all the military might against Abu Sayyaf,” Army Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo said, adding that security forces had identified the lair of militants involved in the church attack.

Soldiers backed by policemen also raided the hideout of one of the suspects in the Jan. 27 bombings at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, said Pabayo, the Joint Task Force Sulu commander. A man identified as Omal Yusuf was killed in the raid but other suspects escaped, he said.

The target of the raid was a certain Kamah, who is believed to be a member of a youth gang with known ties to Abu Sayyaf.

“As the policemen arrived at said place, the suspect drew his firearm and fired at government forces, which prompted them to return fire that resulted in his death,” said Senior Superintendent Bernard Banac, spokesman for the national police. “Unfortunately, alias Kamah was able to escape together with an unidentified person.”

The military offensive was carried out on orders of President Rodrigo Duterte, who blamed Abu Sayyaf for Sunday’s attack targeting Philippine Catholics. But on Tuesday, citing an intelligence brief, the president disclosed that the attack could have been carried out by “suicide bombers.”

That revelation has thrown the investigation into disarray, with the military and police still sticking to the angle that the Jolo blasts were carried out by rogue militants allied with Abu Sayyaf.

Mosque attack

In Zamboanga city, unidentified men lobbed a grenade inside the mosque early Wednesday, killing two Muslim religious leaders and wounding four other people.

Before the explosion two men were seen in Talon-Talon, a village near the mosque, Army Col. Leonel Nicolas, head of the military’s Joint Task Force in Zamboanga, told reporters.

He identified the fatalities as Habil Rex, 46, and Bato Sattal, 47.

“The perpetrators just left the scene on foot,” said Senior Superintendent Thomas Joseph Martir, director of the Zamboanga City Police.

Investigators recovered fragments of the grenade’s lever, he said.

Regional Army commander Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega called on the public to avoid speculating on whether the explosions in Jolo and Zamboanga were connected.

“Let us not be divided by the recent incidents,” he said, “Instead, let us work as one for the perpetrators to be immediately identified and neutralized.”

Muslim religious leaders condemned the mosque attack as “devilish, irrational and inhumane,” as they called on the public to remain calm in the face of the violence.

“We share the grief of the families who lost their loved ones and sincerely extend our condolences to them in the most comforting manner that a human being may,” the Ulama Council of Zamboanga Peninsula said in statement.

In Manila, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the government would ensure the public’s safety.

“The successive attacks on two different places of worship depict the ruthlessness and the godlessness of these mass murderers,” Panelo said.

“This latest act of murder, apart from the terrorists sowing terror in the Mindanao region, coming as it does in the wake of the Jolo dastardly bombing, is a taunting challenge to the capability of the government to secure the safety of the inhabitants in Mindanao,” Panelo said.


Unlikely connection

In the Philippine capital, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Zamboanga and the Jolo blasts were “unlikely” connected, noting that sectarian revenge attacks were not common in the Philippines.

“The president has said in Jolo that the Christians and Muslims have been coexisting for a hundred years and there have never been revenge attacks,” Lorenzana said, emphasizing that Abu Sayyaf could have executed the cathedral attack in concert with Islamic State.

“The ISIS maybe wants to bring that to a higher level of religious war, but nobody wants to take that bait, not the Christians or even the mainstream Muslims,” he said, using the other acronym for IS.

Sunday’s bomb explosions occurred in Jolo town, the capital of Sulu province where pro-Islamic State (IS) Abu Sayyaf militants are active.

Shortly after the attack, IS’s East Asia Province claimed responsibility for it, according to SITE Intelligence, a U.S. group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant networks.

The Abu Sayyaf had opposed the ratification of a law granting full autonomy to mainly Muslim areas of the Philippine south.

The church bombings occurred two days after Philippine election officials declared that a majority of voters had cast ballots in favor of the law, via a southern plebiscite on Jan. 21. A majority of Jolo islanders, however, had voted against the law and Jolo’s inclusion in the autonomous Muslim region.

Froilan Gallardo and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, Philippines.


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