Philippine military and police investigators on Wednesday sifted through a deep crater left by a car bomb that killed 10 people on the southern Philippine island of Basilan, a day after the attack that analysts said was aimed at causing instability amid a resurgent militancy problem.
The attack occurred Tuesday when a van loaded with explosives blew up at a checkpoint in the periphery of Basilan’s Lamitan town. The vehicle was driven by a man described by the U.S.-based website SITE Intelligence Group as a Moroccan operative of the Islamic State (IS).
The military, however, said there was “no indication” of involvement by IS, and blamed the Abu Sayyaf, a brutal extremist group accused of a series of kidnappings and militant attacks in the south.
Ten people were killed, including the driver, who was obliterated by the blast, which created a crater 10 feet wide and four feet deep. Among those killed were a soldier, four members of a pro-government militia unit, and civilians, including a mother and a child, officials said.
The military had earlier reported that 11 people had died, including the bomber, but this was corrected to 10 on Wednesday.
Lamitan town as target
The explosives were meant for targets inside Lamitan, a mixed Muslim-Christian city, where security has been tight since 2001, when an Abu Sayyaf unit took over a Christian church and a hospital and held several people hostage, the military said.
Among clues recovered Tuesday from the blast site were parts of the destroyed vehicle and fragments of a drum with traces of ammonium nitrate.
“The military has successfully foiled what could have been a major terrorism attack in Lamitan city,” terrorism analyst Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told BenarNews. “But this came at the expense of state security personnel and several civilians.”
Citing military intelligence, he said the attack was planned by Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Mike Lijal, who is also known as Abu Fati, “with the help of some foreign jihadists.”
The Abu Sayyaf unit may have intended to explode the bomb during a parade of school children scheduled on Tuesday morning in Lamitan, Banlaoi said.
“A previous government intelligence report has indicated that as early as July 2018, Abu Fati and four others were planning to conduct bombing operations in Lamitan at an opportune time,” Banlaoi said.
Little is known about Lijal. Intelligence sources said he was one of Abu Sayyaf Basilan leader Furuji Indama’s trusted aides.
Indama took the reins of the Abu Sayyaf from Isnilon Hapilon, who was the Islamic State’s commander in the Philippines when he led a combat force that included fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East in laying siege to the southern city of Marawi last year.
Philippine security forces, backed by aerial reconnaissance by the United States and Australia, pounded the militants with bombs dropped by fighter jets in five months of vicious fighting that left more than 1,200 people dead, including Hapilon.
Foreign fighters arrested
Hours after the early morning attack, IS claimed responsibility by issuing a statement through its Amaq News Agency, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based consultancy that monitors online communications among Islamic militant groups worldwide.
An IS statement translated by SITE analysts mentioned the attacker’s name as “Abu Kathir al-Maghribi” and identified him as a Moroccan.
Banlaoi noted that several foreigners had been arrested in recent months, including a Spanish suspect named Abdelhakim Labidi Adib, 20, who was nabbed in January by the police while trying to sneak through a road block with an Abu Sayyaf militant in Basilan.
“The claim is entirely possible,” Banlaoi said, referring to the IS statement. “Remember there are foreign fighters in Mindanao, months after the Marawi siege.”
He said the attack, which took place days after President Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and days after he had invited the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to the negotiating table, “was clearly meant to agitate other groups.”
“This was just one of the many intended consequences of the BOL,” Banlaoi said.
The BOL was signed last week, four years after a peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main separatist group that gave up its fight for independence to settle for autonomy in the impoverished south.
The MILF has been helping the government go after IS-linked groups in Mindanao, including in areas that the military could not penetrate. It has, however, admitted to losing some of its younger, more hardline fighters to Abu Sayyaf and other groups.
Professor Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department of Ateneo de Davao University, said Tuesday’s attack was meant to derail the implementation of the autonomy law, which would give some four million Muslims in Mindanao a chance to govern themselves through a parliament.
“I do not think it will have immediate effects as of now,” he told BenarNews. “It is a possible attempt to derail the implementation of the BOL especially that the government is already preparing for the very important plebiscite.”
Condemnation from western governments
The attack occurred months after the U.S. Embassy in Manila warned its citizens against travelling to south, citing threats from “terrorist and insurgent groups.”
“Separatist and terrorist groups continue to attack and kidnap civilians, foreigners, political leaders and Philippine security forces in Mindanao,” it said, without specifying the exact nature of the possible attacks.
France, which has seen a rise in terrorism attacks since 2012, on Wednesday strongly condemned the Basilan attack and said it stood in solidarity with the Philippine government.
“France sends its condolences to the families of the victims and expresses its sympathy to the injured, and stands alongside local authorities and the Filipino people in the fight against terrorism,” the French embassy in Manila said in a statement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had visited the military hospital where some of those injured were taken.
“We are saddened by this incident and condole with the families of those who were killed. Civilians must never be targeted,” said Piotr Dregiel, ICRC head in the southern city of Zamboanga, just across the strait from Basilan. “They are not part of the fighting and are protected under international humanitarian law.”
Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo told reporters in Manila that the attack could have been a response to the growing number of Abu Sayyaf gunmen voluntarily surrendering to the government.
"As of yesterday, that’s the indication we saw. The involvement of Abu Sayyaf,” he said. “This group of Furuji Indama is swiftly losing ground. That is why they are resorting to these desperate moves in order to disrupt the mass surrender of Abu Sayyaf members in Basilan and in Sulu.”
While the IS has claimed responsibility for the attack, Arevalo said the government was not easily swayed.
“As of now, there is no indication that the attack was perpetrated by the ISIS,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State.
The bomb attack prompted authorities all over Mindanao to tighten security, with police mobilizing volunteers and asking civilians to report “suspicious-looking personalities” within their areas.
In Davao City, local police spokeswoman Theresita Gaspan, told reporters that all security units were placed on full alert as they tightened their inspection on incoming and outgoing vehicles in the city.
In September 2016, at least 15 people were killed and 70 others were injured when a bomb went off at a night market in Davao, as Duterte was visiting his hometown.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City and Richel V. Umel in Iligan City contributed to this report.