JOLO, Philippines (AP) — An Abu Sayyaf commander aligned with the Islamic State group most likely plotted the suicide attacks on an army camp in the volatile southern Philippines by two militants whose identities remain unknown, a Philippine official said Saturday.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano cited intelligence as showing Hajan Sawadjaan most likely harbored the two suicide bombers and plotted Friday’s attack in an army camp that killed three soldiers, two civilians and themselves. The military says 22 other soldiers and civilians were wounded.
The Islamic State group claimed in a statement that two of its fighters carried out the attack with explosive belts but overstated the military casualties at about 100. It posted what it claimed was a picture of the two young-looking militants before the attack, wearing what appeared to be explosive vests and standing beside a black IS-style flag with lush foliage in the backdrop.
Ano and other security officials have previously blamed Sawadjaan, who is based in the jungles of Sulu province’s mountainous Patikul town, for the Jan. 27 suicide bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral during a Mass that killed 23 people in Sulu’s capital town of Jolo. He is also the suspected mastermind of a July 31, 2018, explosion of a bomb-laden van that killed its driver, reportedly a foreign jihadist with Moroccan blood, and 10 other people in nearby Basilan province.
The Associated Press has seen a captured militant’s video of the foreign jihadist, who used the nom de guerre Abu Kathir Al-Maghribi, with Sawadjaan and his men in a jungle encampment before the foreign militant died in last year’s blast in Basilan.
Philippine officials vowed to hunt down and destroy Sawadjaan and his men.
“We’ve monitored Sawadjaan’s group training suicide bombers before they were deployed. So we will go to the source and destroy his camp,” Ano said.
“If these bandits have not learned from the terrorists who were annihilated in Marawi, then this time they will,” said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, referring to the southern city where Philippine troops quelled a five-month siege two years ago and killed hundreds of Islamic State group-linked militants and their commanders.
In Friday’s attack, military officials said one militant tried to enter the camp but set off his explosive when he was stopped, killing three soldiers at the gate. The second militant dashed into the camp but was shot by other soldiers. He yelled “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” before detonating the bomb that he carried, damaging vehicles in a parking lot.
If the two attackers turn out to be Filipinos, they would be the first known local suicide attackers in the country’s south, a prospect deemed unlikely by some Filipino officials in the past. The southern region has been the scene of decades-long minority Muslim unrest in the largely Roman Catholic nation.
“Philippine authorities were always deluding themselves to think that somehow it was impossible culturally for Filipinos to become suicide bombers,” said Jakarta-based terrorism analyst Sidney Jones. “This isn’t about culture, it’s about indoctrination, and no one is culturally ‘immune.'”
The suicide attacks underscore an effort by Islamic State group supporters in the region, especially in the Philippines, to show that despite the brutal group’s battle setbacks in the Middle East, “their commitment to the caliphate remains and their fight will continue,” Jones said.
Battle setbacks have reduced the number of Abu Sayyaf armed fighters to less than 400 but they have remained a national security threat. Mostly based in impoverished Sulu and outlying islands, the group has been blacklisted as a terrorist band by the United States and the Philippines for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Manila and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.