Massive manhunt underway for suspects
MANILA, Philippines — The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) – in coordination with the Philippine National Police (PNP) – is validating claims by the Middle East-based Islamic State (IS) that it was behind the explosion that killed four people and injured 45 others attending mass on Sunday in the gymnasium of the Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi City, Lanao del Norte.
Regional police said they have identified two persons of interest, but did not divulge the identities as investigation continues.
“The AFP has already initiated its investigation in coordination with the PNP for the bomb signature that would help identify the terrorist group behind the bombing,” AFP public affairs office chief Col. Xerxes Trinidad said yesterday.
“The AFP is validating the claims made by ISIS in the recent news reports as well as the involvement of the DI (Dawlah Islamiyah)-Maute group in this heinous act of terror,” he added.
Trinidad said only seven of those reported injured remained in hospital. Classes resumed in Marawi yesterday, but with tighter security.
The AFP is on heightened alert and has sent more troops to the province.
Trinidad assured the public that the military remains committed to its mandate of protecting the people and the state from both foreign and local threats.
“As we speak, there’s an ongoing massive operation to hunt these terrorist groups or suspected perpetrators of the bombing,” Lt. Gen. William Gonzales, chief of the Zamboanga City-based Western Mindanao Command, told reporters after a security meeting in Marawi City.
“(We have persons) of interest, but the investigation is still ongoing. In order not to preempt the investigation, we will not divulge the names,” Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao regional police chief Brig. Gen. Allan Nobleza told GMA News, adding that one of the suspects was linked to a local militant group.
Military spokesman Col. Medel Aguilar said AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. flew to Marawi “to make sure that he has personal appreciation of what happened there at the same time give guidance to soldiers and commanders in the field on how to conduct the investigation.”
Failure of intelligence?
On insinuations that failure of intelligence may have led to the bombing, Aguilar said that while the AFP is doing its job, untoward incidents like the latest terror attack happen.
“What we can say is this, if there is a plan and they’re decided, things like this happen sometimes. Our intelligence community had not been remiss in its duty. It’s still gathering information. Too bad, maybe this time they didn’t see it coming,” he said in Filipino.
He also revealed information that some students had received text messages warning of the terror attack.
On the alleged involvement of foreign terrorists, he said such information would be included in their investigation. He added that while there was hardly any proof of involvement of foreign fighters in earlier terror incidents, some may have managed to sneak in and link up with local contacts.
“I’m sure something like this (terror plot) would have reached the intel. But it’s really the modus operandi of the IS to claim responsibility for incidents like this,” Aguilar said.
He said they have yet to establish if the Middle East terror group really has local contacts.
He maintained that the last time IS militants linked up with a homegrown terror group led to the months-long siege of Marawi City in May 2017, where he said a terror leader was killed. He was apparently referring to Isnilon Hapilon who was killed by sniper.
“So we do not know if they really have contact. But our investigation continues to determine who was really involved,” the military spokesman said.
Brawner said he suspected the bombing could be a retaliatory attack for operations against local extremist groups in Mindanao, particularly the Dawlah Islamiyah and Maute.
“That could be one of the strong possibilities why this occurred,” Brawner said. “Your security forces… are working doubly hard to make sure that the perpetrators of this terrorist attack will be brought to justice.”
The military recently said it had killed a senior operative from Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for kidnapping and piracy that has aligned itself with the IS.
Abu Sayyaf’s late leader Hapilon was IS’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia and mastermind of the 2017 occupation of Marawi, which led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people during a five-month military campaign to retake the Islamic city.
“We recommended to our chief of staff to harden our operation activities here, because as I have said we have to address this as soon as possible. Our first and foremost aim here is to get the perpetrators, dismantle and crush the local terrorist group and prevent these terrorists from resurging in this place,” Westmincom’s Gonzales told reporters.
Two more companies from the military and police units were deployed within the sprawling MSU campus.
“We augmented a company of military infantry just to secure the area so that we can say it is really clear and those who were left are secured,” he said.
Meanwhile, the PNP has placed its units in Metro Manila on high alert. “The safety and well-being of the community is our top priority,” the PNP said in a statement.
Police regional units in Mindanao are on “full alert status.”
The PNP said it has to maintain a state of readiness to ensure swift response to security threats.
“In our commitment to proactive crime prevention, we are intensifying efforts through the deployment of patrols and checkpoints in strategic locations,” the PNP said, adding that increased police presence around the metropolis “serves as a deterrent and reinforces security measures.”
“We solemnly assure the public that justice will prevail for the victims and those accountable will face the consequences of their actions,” PNP chief Benjamin Acorda Jr. said.
No suicide bomber
At a press briefing at Camp Crame, PNP spokesperson Col. Jean Fajardo said there is no indication a suicide bomber was involved in the attack.
“There is no indication that it was a suicide bombing. I spoke with the provincial director because the victims are Christians, a mass was ongoing when it happened,” she said.
The victims, one male and three females, were all Christians, Fajardo said.
She added the police are examining closed-circuit television footage in the area to determine the vehicles used by the two persons of interest. Fragments of a 60mm mortar were recovered at the scene and are being examined.
She added they were trying to determine the triggering device used by the attacker, whether it was a cellphone or a battery. — Mark Ernest Villeza