President Rodrigo Duterte ordered security forces Monday to crush pro-Islamic State militants suspected of exploding bombs that killed at least 20 people and wounded 112 others at a Catholic Cathedral in the southern Philippines a day earlier, officials said.
Duterte issued the order as he visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the town of Jolo, where the twin bombings took place, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.
“On the Abu Sayyaf, crush them,” Lorenzana, who accompanied Duterte during the brief visit, quoted the president as saying.
Asked by reporters if Duterte’s directive meant that the Philippine leader believed that the Abu Sayyaf Group was involved in the attack, Lorenzana answered in the affirmative.
“Yes, and for all the atrocities they have committed so far,” he said, without elaborating.
Lorenzana, who travelled with Duterte and other officials, including military chief Benjamin Madrigal and national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon, said authorities were looking at six “persons of interest” seen on surveillance video before the blasts.
The first bomb exploded inside the cathedral during a Mass on Sunday morning, followed by another blast at a parking lot as people panicked and rushed to safety, officials said.
On Monday, police ordnance experts scoured the blast site as they scrambled to gather evidence that would point to the perpetrators.
Local officials had earlier blamed Abu Sayyaf extremists, who operate actively in Jolo. But the way the attack was coordinated pointed to the handiwork of foreign militants, the military said.
The SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups, reported shortly after the blasts that the Islamic State’s “East Asia Province” had issued a formal statement claiming responsibility.
National police chief Oscar Albayalde said ordnance experts had so far recovered mobile phone fragments, indicating that the blasts could have been triggered by remote control.
“But they could not definitively say if it was cellphone detonated because there were other cellphones inside [the church],” Albayalde said.
He said the explosions occurred between 12 and 15 seconds apart, adding that initial reports showed that the attackers used a pipe bomb containing 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) of ammonium nitrate, which is often used in improvised explosive devices.
Albayalde said the national headquarters had ordered a general lockdown on Jolo, with roadblocks and checkpoints set up.
“We have enough troops here. We have two battalions of the SAF also here,” he said, referring to the police commando unit, the Special Action Force.
Pope, world leaders express outrage
Meanwhile, Pope Francis led world leaders in condemning the bombings. The pontiff expressed his “firmest reproach” and called for the perpetrators to change their ways.
“Let us pray for the victims of the terrorist attack on the Cathedral of Jolo, in the Philippines,” the Vatican News quoted Francis as saying in Panama City, where he was attending a World Youth Day celebration.
He noted that the attack brought new “mourning to the Christian community” as he prayed for God to “convert the hearts of the violent and grant the inhabitants of that region a peaceful co-existence.”
Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross – all traditional aid donors to the strife-torn southern Philippines – also conveyed their outrage over the attack.
The British government also updated its travel advisory, warning its citizens from travelling to the southern Philippines until further notice.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his sympathies, and condoled with the families and relatives of the people who died in the attack.
“An attack on people attending Sunday services is a despicable act of cowardice, and Canada strongly condemns today’s cathedral bombing in Jolo,” Trudeau said in a message posted on Twitter.
Ola Almgren, the U.N.’s resident coordinator in the Philippines, described the bombings as a cowardly act that sought to cause confusion and panic amid the vote to ratify the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BOL) in the south.
“The U.N. condemns the attack, and any form of violent extremism, and we hope that the perpetrators can quickly be identified and brought to justice,” Almgren said in a statement.
The bombings took place just two days after the nation’s elections commission confirmed that a majority in the mostly Muslim provinces in the southern Philippines had cast “yes” ballots last week for the ratification of the BOL.
The law aims to give the south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament and control over many local government functions, including taxation and education.
‘Senseless act,’ MILF negotiator says
The BOL which Duterte signed last year, came into being four years after the government signed a peace deal with the former separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which dropped its war for independence for autonomy.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the MILF, condemned the twin bombings.
“The MILF is ready to support efforts in the apprehension of the perpetrators of the senseless violence that occurred in a place of worship while people were attending the morning mass,” Iqbal said.
“This criminal act has no place in our civilized society especially that we are about to reap the fruits of our struggle with the ratification of Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in the just concluded plebiscite,” he said.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the bombings only show that terrorism does not end in giving the MILF autonomy in the south.
“This is a big challenge for the MILF to stop or lessen such kind of attacks,” Banlaoi told reporters.
The military poured additional forces in Jolo last month in a bid to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which has an estimated armed strength of less than 500. The group gained notoriety for its alleged involvement in recent bombings and for beheading some of its kidnapped victims.
In 2004, the Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” bombed a passenger ferry on Manila Bay, killing more than 100 people in one of the deadliest terrorist strikes in the country.
A faction of the Abu Sayyaf headed by Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State’s acknowledged leader in Southeast Asia, took over southern Marawi city in May 2017 and led local militants, backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters, in a five-month battle with government forces.
About 1,200 people, most of them militants, were killed. Hapilon was among them.
Duterte, who had placed the entire south under military rule over the past two years, was disappointed with the incident, but would likely wait for results of the investigation before blaming any group, his spokesman, Salvador Panelo, told reporters.
Panelo said intelligence agencies had briefed the president about the SITE report, but Duterte had no immediate reaction to it.
Esperon, the national security adviser, said police were studying a recording from closed-circuit television (CCTV) that showed a group of people moving away “suspiciously” from the blast site.
“We are looking at some persons of interest caught in the CCTV that we reviewed. Nothing is conclusive yet, but their actuations seem to tell us that they appear to have a participation in the attack,” Esperon said on local television.
One of those caught on surveillance camera was a known relative of an Abu Sayyaf commander, Esperon said, adding that authorities had earlier received intelligence information that the militants might try to stage attacks to disrupt the BOL vote.
Karl Romano contributed to this report from Manila.