MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the blast in Basilan that killed at least 10 people, including the driver of the van that exploded, appeared to have been a "suicide bombing."
In a text message to Rappler on Tuesday, July 31, hours after the blast, Lorenzana said, "It looks like a suicide bombing as the driver of the van with explosives was the one who detonated it, killing himself in the process."
The first reported suicide bombing in the Philippines occurred in Cotabato City in 1997, said to have been perpetrated by 2 alleged al-Qaeda trainers.
In her book, "Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Terror Center," Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa wrote: "Intelligence officials believe that in 1997 al-Qaeda tried to inspire its more moderate Southeast Asian counterparts to turn to suicide bombing attacks. Two suspected al-Qaeda trainers, Saudi Al Maki Ragab and Egyptian Muhammad Gharib Ibrahimi Sayed Ahmed, staged a suicide attack on an Army camp in Cotabato City on Oct 14, 1997. It was the first and only one of a few instances of suicide bombings in the region.”
In the July 31 blast in Basilan, the military has blamed the Abu Sayyaf Group. It came a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte reached out to the extremists for a dialogue "to end bloodshed in Mindanao."
Just last week, Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law aimed at addressing the key issues that gave rise to Mindanao's long-standing conflicts – although this is an offshoot of the peace agreement between the previous Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which the Abu Sayyaf does not recognize.
Soldiers earlier said the driver looked like a foreigner and did not speak the local dialect.
On Wednesday, August 1, the defense chief said in an official statement that while there are several angles being looked into regarding the bombing, these are all "pure speculation" at the moment.
"As we speak, there are several theories circulating regarding the circumstances surrounding the incident. Although we are not discounting them entirely, all of these are just pure speculation at this time and are now the subject of an investigation being conducted by a joint team of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and PNP (Philippine National Police)," he said.
"As such, I enjoin everyone not to jump to any conclusion and just allow our investigators to do their job," he added.
Suicide bombing or not, the military and the local government unit said resorting to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) shows the desperation of the Abu Sayyaf Group as the government makes headway in the fight against the bandit group.
"Our assessment here is they are losing ground so they are trying to project that they are still a force to reckon with," said Lieutenant General Arnel dela Vega, commander of the Western Mindanao Command.
The blast killed all those at the checkpoint where the van driver was flagged – a soldier, 4 militias, and 5 civilians, including women, a 10-year-old child, and the driver. – Rappler.com