Department of National Defense

Security officials probing possible links between Marawi blast, 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing

Inday Espina-Varona

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Security officials probing possible links between Marawi blast, 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing

MARAWI BLAST. Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. (center) leads a press briefing at the Department of National Defense headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on December 3, 2023, on the explosion during a Sunday Mass in Marawi City.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

AFP chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. says there are similarities between the two explosions, but investigators cannot yet say if the perpetrators of the Jolo attacks were from the same group behind the Marawi blast

MANILA, Philippines – There are similarities in style between the December 3 blast in Marawi City and the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing, defense and military officials said.

In a press conference on Sunday, December 3, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Romeo Brawner Jr. confirmed Lanao del Sur Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr.’s statement that an improvised explosive device (IED) was used to bomb the Marawi State University gym, killing at least four and wounding more than 40 people.

Two IEDs were also triggered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, back in January 2019, causing the deaths of 23 people. 

Both explosions were on a Sunday, when chapels and churches are usually packed with Catholics attending Mass. 

Officials are probing if an unidentified woman who died in the Marawi blast was responsible for the incident.

“The mere fact that she is unidentified does not lead us to conclude anything… even speculation, we cannot do that,” Teodoro said. “We’ll have to identify her first and then backtrack.”

Brawner said there were similarities in the two explosions, but investigators could not yet conclude if the perpetrators of the Jolo attacks were from the same group responsible for the Marawi blast. 

He also said that of the leads that flooded following the December 3 blast, a big percentage refers to the Islamic State-linked Maute Group blamed for the Marawi siege. 

‘Foreign terrorists’

The DND held the press conference after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. blamed foreign terrorists for the Marawi explosion, without giving any details. 

A female suicide bomber triggered the second of two explosions in downtown Jolo, Sulu, the military said. She was a Filipino, one of two women, suspected of plotting a bombing, who earlier evaded military pursuers in an operation which ended with the fatal shooting of 4 soldiers by police.

Teodoro refused to answer a question about the government receiving intelligence reports of any bomb plot in Marawi. 

Philippine National Police Major General Emmanuel Peralta, the acting chief for directorial staff, said there were no CCTVs around the gym that had caught any possible perpetrator. Cops were scouring streets near the blast site to search for suspects, he added. 

Brawner said they are also studying possible links between the December 3 attack and the government gains in going after extremist groups in Basilan and Sulu in Western Mindanao, and in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur on the mainland. 

Mindanao-based peace advocates have warned against prematurely assigning blame for the blast. 

The Council for Climate and Conflict Action Asia (CCAA) warned against a disturbing increase in hate speech following the deadly bombing in Marawi City on Sunday morning, December 3.

“Let us be vigilant but not vigilantes,” said the CCAA, adding that its Early Response Network (ERN) has reported a rise in calls for revenge and hate speech on the ground and social media.

“We also call for calm and reflection amidst attempts to polarize the situation and sow the seeds of a Muslim-Christian conflict,” the group said.

Wellness, morale

Security officials said the government would focus on ensuring the psychological well-being of MSU students and Marawi residents. 

“Ang mga estudyante doon ay natatakot na, so dapat ma-assure namin sila na di na ito mauulit,” and that their education can continue, Brawner said. (Students there are afraid, so we should assure them that this will not happen again.)

Teodoro said the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Health are onboard to provide wellness and the morale of students and residents. 

Maute group

The group responsible for the 2017 has already weakened, said Brawner, who estimated their strength post siege to just 50 members. 

Brawner, the brigade commander during the Marawi siege, said the military had killed the remaining original commander, Abu Dar.

His successor, Abu Zacharias was killed this year, Brawner added.

“But they are still capable. Konti na lang sila (there’s just a few of them), but they are still capable of doing terroristic attacks just like what happened today.”

Foreigners were among the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group members fighting government troops in Marawi City

There is still no order to add to the number of troops assigned in Marawi, said the AFP chief. 

A command conference on Monday, December 4 will assess the situation on the ground, not just in Marawi but the entire Mindanao, he said. 

Peralta said the PNP has “enough forces” in the area. –

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