MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The military said on Tuesday, July 2, that “there is a high possibility” that the deadly twin blasts that rocked an army camp in Indanan, Sulu, on June 28 were suicide bombings.
However, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo said they “hesitate to jump into a conclusion” lest it cause panic and trigger copycat attacks.
This tempers a statement from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday, July 1, that the incident was “obviously a suicide bombing” because “the person exploded.”
Although the two attackers bore the improvised explosive devices (IED) on their bodies, an investigation had yet to rule out that the bombs could have been detonated remotely and not by the attackers themselves, Arevalo told reporters in a media briefing.
Investigators have also yet to determine whether any of the attackers were Filipino.
The remains of one attacker were given to a woman who claimed to be his mother, Arevalo said. Investigators will compare DNA samples from the woman and from the attacker to confirm whether they are related and, if so, that the attacker was a Filipino.
Investigators were also working on a DNA sample from the remains of the other attacker, whom AFP Western Mindanao Command chief Major General Cirilito Sobejana said could be the son of the Moroccan attacker in another suspected suicide bombing incident in Lamitan, Basilan, in July of 2018.
Confirming that the incident was a suicide attack would mark a major escalation in terror tactics from local terrorist groups. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the Sulu twin blasts; the AFP points to a faction of the Abu Sayyaf group with possible links to ISIS.
When pressed further on the identities of the attackers, Arevalo told reporters, “I think what you’re trying to ask me about is, is there already a case of suicide bombing in the Philippines by a Filipino?"
He added: "Let me tell you this: Kung makita natin sa imbestigasyon na ito ay Pilipino at ito ay suicide bombing, with the context na pinasabog niya ang sarili niya (If we find out through the investigation that this was a Filipino and this was a suicide bombing, with the context that he detonated himself), we are not going to hesitate to tell you so.”
Arevalo cautioned against “jumping into conclusions” and added that investigations have not yet proven that the 3 incidents were indeed suicide attacks.
The fact that the attackers had the explosives on their bodies did not necessarily mean they were “suicide bombers,” Arevalo said, because they could have been coerced and the bombs detonated remotely by someone else.
Sobejana on Tuesday said as much, noting that investigators could not entirely rule out the possibility the bomb was remotely detonated and the 23-year-old suspect, who allegedly has ties to jihadist group Abu Sayyaf, was merely carrying it.
"The probability that it was a suicide bombing is very high, but we also have to consider those possibilities," he said.
'Disruption of operational successes'
On June 28, two men stormed the gates of the 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) camp in Indanan town in Sulu province. An IED on one of them exploded as soldiers accosted him, creating a distraction that enabled the second bomber to get past the gates into the camp. Other soldiers tried to shoot the second attacker, whose IED package then exploded.
At least 7 people were killed in the blasts, including 3 soldiers, 2 civilians and the 2 bombers. Twelve soldiers and 10 civilians were wounded.
Arevalo said the attackers aimed to disrupt the military’s “chain of operational successes” against armed groups in Mindanao, which has been under martial law since the Marawi City siege in May of 2017. The twin blasts in Indanan targeted the 1st Brigade Combat Team, a reinforced and specialized unit that had only recently arrived in the area. It was aimed at quelling violence from such armed groups as the Abu Sayyaf.
If confirmed, the bomber would be the first known local suicide attacker in a nation where security officials had long said the tactic goes against local culture.
Insurgent groups have killed tens of thousands in their decades-long fight for a separate Muslim homeland in the Catholic-majority nation.
Authorities have blamed foreign attackers for the two previous blasts which killed more than 30 people.
The Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for some of the worst terror attacks in Philippine history, including frequent kidnappings of foreigners.
Members of the group have pledged allegiance to ISIS, including those who participated in the 2017 siege of the southern city of Marawi.
Analysts have said suicide attacks could be taking root in the Philippines, driven by IS influence.
"It is an escalation, but it's also a sign of increased radicalization," said Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in Washington. – With reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.