Britain and Australia have cautioned their citizens against traveling to the southern Philippines in the wake of a bombing that killed two people and injured more than three dozen at a shopping mall in Cotabato City on New Year’s Eve.
The military said it suspected that Islamic militants carried out Monday’s attack to retaliate for intensified army offensives in the Philippine south, which is heavily militarized and under martial law.
Police, meanwhile, said they were looking into the possibility that groups opposed to an upcoming plebiscite on giving Muslims expanded autonomy in the south were behind the bombing.
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] advises against all travel to western and central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago because of terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups,” the British government said Wednesday in updating its travel advisory to the Philippines.
Citing a threat of terrorism, Britain advised its citizens against “all but essential travel” to the rest of Mindanao, the country’s southern third which has been locked in militant violence for years.
The FCO also warned that terrorists could strike as far north as Manila.
“Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at anytime and anywhere in the country, including in places visited by foreigners, like airports, shopping malls, public transport, including the metro system, and places of worship. You should remain vigilant at all times and report anything suspicious to local authorities,” British officials said.
Following the Dec. 31 attack at the entrance to the South Seas Mall in Cotabato, Australia asked its citizens to seek specific advice for locations they intended to visit in the Philippines, citing a high threat of attacks, even in the Philippine capital.
“Exercise a high degree of caution in the Philippines overall,” it said, urging everyone to “reconsider” travel plans to the south “due to very high levels of violent crime, high threats of terrorist attacks and kidnapping.
“Possible targets for terrorist attacks include commercial and public places frequented by foreigners,” it added.
But Carlito Galvez Jr., a former military chief who serves as a presidential adviser on the peace process in the south, described Monday’s deadly bomb blast as an isolated incident.
“Our security forces are on top of the situation. Let’s trust that the perpetrators will be brought to justice and that acts like this will be stopped,” he said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the military said it was looking at the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front (BIFF) or Daulah Islamiyah, a loose coalition of Islamic militants operating in the south.
Both groups rejected the 2017 passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2018. The law came four years after the government approved a peace deal with a former separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A referendum on ratifying the law is scheduled for Jan. 21 in majority-Muslim areas of the south.
The BIFF, a group of hardline Islamists, split from the MILF and has opposed the BOL. It has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and carried out diversionary bomb attacks as other militants took over the southern city of Marawi in 2017.
Five months of fighting left Marawi in ruins and killed more than 1,200 people, mostly militants, according to the Philippine government.
Chief Superintendent Benigno Durana Jr., spokesman for the national police, said Monday’s bomb bore a signature composition of explosives used by local IS-inspired terrorist groups.
“The modus operandi, the signature, the way it was constructed, and the way it was deployed show this was caused by Daesh-inspired or ISIS-inspired terrorist groups in Mindanao,” he said, referring to IS by its other acronyms.
Driver of MILF official killed
Ebrahim Murad, the leader of the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said the blast was meant to sow chaos and derail the plebiscite.
“In the past, similar incidents have been resorted to in order to derail the Bangsamoro peace process,” he said in a statement. “We must forge ahead with the same resolve as before so that we may finally achieve peace.”
Murad urged authorities to thoroughly investigate the attack.
Among those killed in the bombing was Jonathan Torriblano, a driver for Melanio Ulama, one of the MILF’s representatives to a transitional council working toward a smooth implementation of the law.
“It is precisely for the absence of security in our homeland that we exert our efforts for the passage of the BOL so that a government can be established that can really protect and promote the peace and security of the place and its people,” Murad said.