THE Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a pair of bombings at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu that has killed 21 people and left over 80 injured during a mass on Sunday, January 27.
The first explosion went off inside the cathedral on Sunday morning, while a subsequent blast happened seconds later as security forces rushed inside.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) speculate that the Abu Sayyaf Group carried out the deadly attack and are also looking into the possibility of a suicide bombing.
However, hours after the bombings, the Islamic State said it was behind the incident, according to its news agency Amaq.
Pope Francis expressed his “firm condemnation of this act of violence that causes more mourning in the Christian community.”
Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s verbal tirades against the Catholic Church, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Sunday’s attacks are not related to the president’s words.
“In fact, the president is outraged. He’s so angry that they have not respected a place of worship – that’s why he declared war against all these perpetrators,” Panelo told reporters on Tuesday.
He added, “Those who will attack places of worship, especially with the Catholics, are doing it because they do not believe in that religion.”
Various reports said 111 individuals were wounded in the twin blasts, while 16 civilians and five troops were among the fatalities. However, the Philippine National Police (PNP) on Tuesday clarified that the number of wounded victims has been reduced.
“The total number killed is 21 while wounded persons [were] reduced to 97 and 54 of the wounded victims remain confined in different medical facilities [and] those with minor injuries had been discharged,” PNP spokesperson Senior Supt. Bernard Banac told reporters in press briefing held at Camp Crame.
Since Sunday, Sulu’s capital town has been on lockdown, but Banac said it will be lifted once investigators are done gathering evidence at the cathedral.
“The lockdown is just a precautionary measure in support of ongoing security operations to establish strong control points in ingress and egress to and from Jolo by putting up roadblocks and checkpoints. It also allows investigators more flexibility to move around,” PNP Chief Director General Oscar Albayalde said in a statement read by Banac.
Albayalde told reporters that there are substantive leads police investigators are looking into, including surveillance camera footage of possible suspects seen in the vicinity of the cathedral minutes before the explosions.
According to closed circuit television (CCTV) footage released Tuesday, January 29 by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Mindanao Command (WESTMINCOM), at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, one improvised explosive device (IED) detonated at the cathedral, while the second exploded 15 seconds later.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon initially identified six persons of interest based on the CCTV footage and an earlier intelligence report issued in 2018.
“Dalawang grupo (two groups) So far, anim, six of them. Information from what I understand is that we have leads not only from the CCTV but we also have leads because we have a previous report from the intelligence community as early as August last year,” Esperon said as reported by Rappler.
AFP WESTMINCOM Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana also released the images of the three suspects who were seen entering and leaving the church before the mass even started. The cameras have also zeroed on one other suspect who is known as Kamah.
Kamah is allegedly a member of Ajang-Ajang faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). He is believed to be the brother of fallen bandit leader Surakah Ingog, an alleged bombmaker slain in Sulu in August 2018.
In the CCTV footage, Kamah is reportedly seen wearing a blue-green jacket, with his hair in a bun. He is seen at 8:30 a.m. walking with two other men, after 10 seconds, he hands out – a small item – before the second explosion occurs.
Besana said the man who could be Kamah may have detonated the IEDs using the item in his hand before he escaped. Besana stated that the videos were only compressed and not cropped or trimmed so that they can send those to the other officials and reporters who are not based in Mindanao.
Duterte orders Abu Sayyaf takedown
In line with the recent tragedy, Duterte ordered the military to take down the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) “by whatever means” after visiting the blast site on Monday afternoon.
“I ordered you to destroy the organization. I’m ordering you now: pulpugin ninyo ang Abu Sayyaf (eliminate the Abu Sayyaf) by whatever means,” Duterte told reporters.
He added, “Ang gawin ninyo, sabihin ninyo pagka-bobombahin mo ‘yang lahat. Paalisin mo ‘yung mga tao, ilagay mo dito kung saan ako, ako ang maggastos ng pagkain – lahat. Tapos plantsahin ninyo ng bala (What you do, I tell you, bomb them all, evacuate all residents. Let them stay where I am. I’ll pay for food, everything. Then prepare the bullets).”
Panelo said that the move to heighten alert in the entire country is a necessary move to secure the public. The spokesperson believed that such is a “preventive measure.”
“Kapag may nangyari doon at ang pinagdududahan mo ang ISIS, eh worldwide ang ISIS, you have to secure the entire Philippines. Kasi kung may nangyari doon, baka may mangyari ditto; alangan namang maghintay ka pa, gagawa ka ng preventive measures (If something happens and you assume the involvement of ISIS, since ISIS is worldwide, you have to secure the entire Philippines. If something happened there, it might happen here. You don’t have to wait. You have to ensure preventive measures),” Panelo said.