Philippine Police File Murder Charges against 5 Suspects in Church Bombings

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato City, Philippines
190204-PH-jolo-1000.jpg Philippine Air Force personnel carry one of the wounded soldiers who were airlifted to a military base in the southern city of Zamboanga after security forces clashed with Abu Sayyaf militants on the island of Jolo, Feb. 2, 2019.
HO/Armed Forces of the Philippines/Western Mindanao Command

Philippine authorities filed murder charges Monday against five suspected Abu Sayyaf militants who surrendered after being accused of involvement in the twin bombings that killed 22 people at a Catholic Church in the southern town of Jolo, the country’s police chief said.

But authorities struggled on Monday to determine the real identities of the bombers who set off the brazen attack at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Jan. 27.

“I am pleased to announce the surrender over the weekend of the Kammah L. Pae and four other persons who performed individual roles in that incident,” National Police chief Director General Oscar Albayalde told reporters.

“The five surrendered due to the massive hot-pursuit operations by troops from the Patikul municipal police station,” working alongside the army, Albayalde said, adding that complaints of murder and attempted murder have been filed against the five men.

Members of Indonesia’s elite Densus 88 anti-terrorism personnel arrived in Manila on Monday to help probe suspicions that an Indonesian couple were involved in the church attack, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año told reporters.

But Wiranto, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for security, legal and political affairs, said Philippine authorities should not have jumped the gun.

“It's just one-sided news,” he said. “There are many possibilities. Don't rush to the conclusion that they were Indonesians.”

Wiranto made the statement hours after Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that information from the Philippine media that two Indonesians were involved in the church bombings was “still hypothetical.”

“We'll look into this closely. Whether they were Indonesian citizens we have yet to find out,” Retno told reporters in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province.

She said Indonesian officials had been “communicating intensively” with Philippine authorities.

“Information we have received is that the identification process is still ongoing,” Retno said.

Explosives seized

Albayalde said authorities seized improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during a raid at Kammah’s home. He identified the other suspects as Albaji Kisae Gadjali, Rajan Bakil Gadjali, Kaisar Bakil Gadjali and Salith Alih. It was not known if they were related to each other by blood.

“The five suspects belong to a group of 22 Abu Sayyaf personalities led by Hatid Hajan Sawadjaan that are believed responsible and conspired for the terrorist attack,” he said.

Troops were still on the trail of the other militants, while three other suspects, including two “Asian suicide bombers had been killed,” Albayalde said. The other fatality, Ommal Yusop, was killed in an earlier operation.

The bombing plot began on Jan. 8, when two Abu Sayyaf members attempted to assemble a bomb but subsequently abandoned the effort, the police chief said. Days later, according to Albayalde, Sawadjaan provided funds to pursue the bombing mission.

About a week before the incident, an unidentified Asian couple believed to be holed up in a nearby southern island travelled to Jolo, Albayalde said, citing statements given by some of the suspects. The couple were then taken to a safe house and later to a forested area where they met Sawadjaan, he said.

The couple, carrying black trolley bags, and several of the plotters arrived in Jolo, capital of Sulu province, on the eve of the bombing, Albayalde said.

“At 8:28 a.m. the following morning, it is believed that the Indonesian woman detonated the first IED inside the Jolo cathedral, while the man detonated the second IED at the church entrance seconds later,” he said, using the acronym for a homemade bomb.

Ordnance experts believe the two bombs were made using galvanized iron pipes that possibly contained a combination of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil as primary explosive charge. The devices were boosted by secondary explosives, such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate, TNT or RDX, Albayalde said.

“This particular type of IED, by design, is identified with the Abu Sayyaf group as nine similar IEDS have been involved in at least five recent incidents in Basilan and Sulu in 2016 and 2017,” he said.

Albayalde was referring to the nearby southern island of Basilan, where a similar explosion attributed to the Abu Sayyaf killed 10 people last year. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State, which said it was carried out by a Moroccan operative. That claim, however, has been brushed aside by the Philippine military, and authorities later filed charges against an Abu Sayyaf faction.

But Albayalde on Monday said a similar bomb was used by the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan in at least three other instances and one other instance in Jolo.

“The signature of the Abu Sayyaf group, therefore, is patently present in the IED used in this latest terror attack in Jolo,” he said.

Brazen attack

The church attack was particularly brazen, coming as it did at a time when thousands of troops had been deployed in Jolo to secure the peace. Dozens of people were wounded in the blast, the latest to hit the church in recent years.

Days after the blast, unidentified men lobbed a grenade inside a Muslim mosque in nearby Zamboanga city, killing two religious leaders and wounding four other people. Officials, however, were quick to play down a connection between the explosions, fearing an eruption of sectarian violence.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who visited Jolo a day after the bombings, said the church attack was the handiwork of “suicide bombers.”

Police had earlier said that the bombs were remotely detonated. Authorities tagged several people for the crime, but later cleared the suspects of involvement in what investigators said was a case of mistaken identity.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said members of Densus 88 had arrived in Manila to help.

“We coordinated with the Indonesian government. They will help,” Año told reporters. “At least we will know if we can identify these bombers behind the cathedral blasts as Indonesian.”

“It was the Abu Sayyaf who guided them, studied the target, did reconnaissance and surveillance work, and brought the couple inside the cathedral,” he said.

Albayalde said that a DNA test was to be carried out, but authorities have never fully explained with whom they would compare the DNA samples gathered from a contaminated crime scene in Jolo, which has long been known as a domain of the Abu Sayyaf fighters.

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 Philippines.

A faction of the Abu Sayyaf headed by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State extremist group 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.

10 BIFF militants surrender

Meanwhile, in Maguindanao, 10 pro-Islamic State militants under the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) surrendered to the military in Shariff Aguak town on Sunday, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.

The rebels, led by Commander Gani Saligan, also surrendered their weapons, Sobejana said.

Sobejana said the rebels were students of Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), who was killed by government troops in January 2015 in Maguindanao province, during a police operation that also resulted in the deaths of 44 elite commandos.

The BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 and has pledged allegiance to the IS.

Sobejana also said that eight pro-IS militants were killed and 10 others were believed wounded in the airstrikes launched by government troops over the weekend in Maguindanao, as security forces intensified their offensive against armed groups after the twin bombings in Jolo.

Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Richel V. Umel in Iligan, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao and Joseph Jubelag in General Santos, Philippines, and M. Sulthan Azzam in Padang, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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