MANILA, Philippines – The driver of the white van looked uneasy when he was flagged down at the break of dawn on Tuesday, July 31, at a checkpoint just outside Lamitan City.
On alert due to intelligence reports about a planned attack by the Abu Sayyaf, one of the militias at the checkpoint radioed a Scout Ranger unit positioned in a nearby detachment.
But it was too late. The van exploded.
“The Cafgu [members] were seeking assistance on what to do. They were talking. Apparently, it exploded while they were talking on the phone,” Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, told Rappler in a phone interview on Tuesday after his visit to Basilan. Cafgu refers to the Civlian Armed Forces Geographical Unit, a group of counter-insurgency militias that for decades has been trained and funded by the military.
It is unclear what the militias saw and reported to the Scout Ranger detachment, if the driver said anything that triggered the alert, or how many IEDs he had with him in the vehicle.
All the witnesses at the checkpoint were killed in the blast, including the driver, as well as wives and children of militias who happened to be visiting.
Hapilon's close associate
The military said the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) led by notorious leader Furuji Indama is behind the attack.
Even in hiding, the close associate of slain Islamic State (ISIS) emir Isnilon Hapilon unleashed terror in a province that had long declared it was winning the war against the bandit group.
Basilan Governor Jim Hataman said the Abu Sayyaf has long been defeated in the province, where communities have served as models of local cooperation against extremism.
But the deadly blast highlights why the Abu Sayyaf problem is unique, Hataman said.
“Ang Abu Sayyaf ay kakaibang character kumpara sa MILF o MNLF. Ang Abu Sayyaf mayroon itong technology para matutong gumawa ng bomba kahit mag-isang tao lang siya. Hindi kagaya ng MILF at MNLF na kailangan ng marami bago makagawa ng bomba. Ang point ko is: Hindi dahil nakagawa ng activity, lumakas sila,” Hataman told Rappler.
(The Abu Sayyaf is of different character, compared to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The Abu Sayyaf has the technology that allows individual members to assemble a bomb. It’s not like the MILF and the MNLF, which require a lot of people to assemble one. My point is: The group’s ability to launch an attack doesn’t mean they are getting stronger.)
Hataman said it’s also harder to locate and hunt down a much smaller group. There are reports Indama has left Basilan, but Hataman believes he’s hiding in the thick forests of the province.
Furuji Indama's heyday
Indama is a notorious bandit who was once close to Hapilon.
He is believed to be one of the ajang-ajang, the so-called "sons of martyrs," whose fathers or uncles died in battles with the military.
Governor Hataman said Indama volunteered to join the Abu Sayyaf, showing a different level of commitment early on compared to most recruits.
Indama was responsible for the April 2016 attack that killed 22 soldiers in Lamitan.
There was a time that on his say-so, Indama could bring war to any town or city in Basilan – anytime.
“Dati kapag sinabi niyang, ‘Giyerahin ko ang Lamitan,’ kaya nilang pumuta ng Lamitan at giyerahin ang city. Kapag puntahan mo sa isang lugar, nandiyan 'yan, naghihintay sa iyo, makikipaglaban talaga siya,” said Hataman.
(In the past, when he declared, ‘I’m bringing war to Lamitan’, he can really bring war to the city. If you dare go to him, he will wait for you and will really fight you himself),” said Hataman.
At the height of his notoriety, no government project could be implemented if Indama didn't get grease money, the governor said.
“Minsan nga niyan kapag birthday ng mayor, sasabihin niya, ‘Kapag hindi ka magbigay, paputukan ka namin.’ Ganoon 'yung level ng activity nila dati. Ngayon, wala na 'yan. Wala nang ganoon,” said Hataman.
(There were times when even during the birthday of a mayor, he would say, ‘If you don’t pay us, we will have your place strafed’. That was the level of his activity before. He can’t do that anymore these days.)
Hataman said they have reduced Indama into a shadow of his former self, and communities are no longer willing to give him refuge.
The governor is counting on the mechanisms in place in his province to protect these gains.
“Sinuwerte lang sila ngayon. Hopefully, hindi sila suwertehin nang dalawang beses,” Hataman said. (They just got lucky. Hopefully, they don’t get lucky again.)
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said indications show that the blast was a case of "suicide bombing." (READ: Basilan blast 'looks like a suicide bombing' - Lorenzana)
Supposed witnesses described the van driver as someone who looked like a foreigner and who didn't speak the local language.
The military also said effective checkpoints succeeded in foiling a bigger attack.
Lieutenant General Arnel dela Vega, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, said that based on intelligence reports, the IEDs were supposed to be brought somewhere else. This prompted the military to boost its checkpoints in key areas in Basilan on Tuesday.
Hataman said the Abu Sayyaf target could have been the parade at the city proper scheduled on Tuesday morning, in celebration of Nutrition Month. He hailed the “vigilance of the detachment.”
“If the purpose was to bring it there, then it would have been more damaging and worse than what happened,” Hataman said.
Weakness or strength?
While the ASG has mainly turned from rebels to kidnappers, the Basilan faction in recent years abandoned the crime and instead relied on funding from foreign terrorist networks.
A possible suicide bombing also poses an even bigger challenge to a country that is still grappling to rebuild after the siege of Marawi.
“There are few ways to look at it. On one hand, it could be a sign of weakness. The AFP wants to show that they have the ASG on the run and they’re resorting to desperate measures,” said Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia security expert at the National War College in the US.
“Another take would be that if it was a foreign fighter, they might be trying to show what a real jihadist does to inspire the ASG to escalate the violence. Suicide bombings tend to inspire other attacks. They show utmost commitment to the cause and willingness for martyrdom,” said Abuza.
The ASG in Basilan is known to have hosted foreign fighters who tried but failed in the past to recruit local suicide bombers.
"Certainly the way that the ASG and IS will spin this is it's a show of strength. They have the will and the resources to perpetrate these attacks," Abuza said. – Rappler.com