After a day’s silence, an extremist group has come forward to claim responsibility for the horrific twin bombings that ripped through the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, last Sunday.
The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said that it had monitored a communiqué posted by the militant group Islamic State on a jihadist website claiming that two of its suicide bombers blew themselves up at the church.
But that detail struck the Armed Forces as odd, even unconvincing for now; evidence and eyewitness accounts indicate no suicide bombers, only two pipe bombs that went off successively, one inside the church, the other from a motorcycle in the parking area near the church’s main entrance.
The death toll as of Sunday evening had reached 20 — five military personnel and 15 civilians killed — and a further 112 injured. Detonated in the middle of morning Mass, the bombs were clearly designed to inflict maximum carnage and terror.
That they happened barely a week after the conclusion of the first round of voting for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite leads to the inevitable suspicion that the incident was meant to throw off the rails the delicate political process still underway to grant greater autonomy to Muslim Mindanao.
While the first round of voting has delivered a resounding 85-percent “Yes” vote for the establishment of a new Bangsamoro under the BOL, parts of Mindanao remain strongly opposed to such a move—Sulu among them.
Sulu’s residents rejected the law, voting 163,526 over 137,630 against it; however, because their province is already part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which voted as a bloc, it would, in the end, still be part of the expanded new Bangsamoro.
Sulu, other than being the haunt of the Abu Sayyaf and other extremist groups, is the lair of former ARMM governor Nur Misuari and his Moro National Liberation Front, the predecessor and historic rival of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
It was the MILF’s decision to enter into dogged peace negotiations with the Philippine government that paved the way for the passage of the BOL, thus gaining for the rebel group preeminent status among Mindanao’s power blocs to have first crack at establishing and running the new Bangsamoro.
Sulu’s rejection of the BOL must have caused some worry in Malacañang, because, in its wake, presidential spokesperson
Salvador Panelo had to offer the assurance that Misuari was “not really a threat,” and that President Duterte was even keen on meeting the MNLF leader to talk about the BOL.
The Sulu blasts appear to be the second bombing incident aimed at undermining the BOL voting period; the first occurred some three weeks before the first voting day on Jan. 21, when a bomb exploded outside the South Seas Mall in Cotabato City on Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.
Two people died in that incident, and more than 30 were wounded. No one has claimed credit for that bombing.
The dread and confusion over which group is responsible for these attacks may be serving a deliberate purpose — to heighten the sense of mistrust and suspicion among the Mindanao populace, as parts of the region take the first tentative steps toward charting a new political destiny away from the bitter conflict of the last five decades.
Shadowy groups out there are dead set on waylaying any process that would make secessionism and rebellion irrelevant in Mindanao, and, from the attacks that have happened so far, the agenda is to foment more tension and distraction as the region prepares to complete the BOL ratification process with the second round of voting on Feb. 6.
If the Cotabato mall blast was meant to terrorize the general public, the Jolo bombings seem to have a more specific consequence in mind: sectarian strife — inciting greater antagonism and hostility between Christians and Muslims by attacking the Catholic cathedral in Sulu, where, as an anguished
Fr. Romeo Saniel of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Apostolic administrator of the Vicariate of Jolo, said, “most of those who died were our regular Mass-goers… here every Sunday attending the 8 a.m. Mass.”
Mindanao’s martial law has been extended twice, because Malacañang said the government needed more time to deal with terrorist groups that “continue to defy the government by perpetrating hostile activities.”
Two bombings have now happened back-to-back, and both apparently related to the watershed BOL vote; how is martial law working so far?
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.