A policeman alights from an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) near the Resorts World Manila in Pasay City. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
A policeman alights from an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) near the Resorts World Manila in Pasay City. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

When gambling addict Jessie Javier Carlos walked into the posh Resort World Manila casino in an all-black outfit brandishing an M-4 carbine, unarmed guards, employees and casino players fled the premises screaming, “ISIS! ISIS! Watch out for the hooded guy!”, according to media reports and social media postings.

They were all quick, as was the media, to connect the black-clad and heavily armed Carlos with the pro-Islamic State (IS) gunmen of the local Maute Group that for the past two weeks has rampaged through Marawi City, a predominantly Muslim town on the southern island of Mindanao.

As Filipinos followed news of the June 2 casino attack, Metro Manila and its surrounding suburbs were gripped with fear that IS had moved its operations north and were invading the country’s capital city. Initial sightings claimed the gunman was a tall, Caucasian male who spoke only English, that is until the cab driver who dropped him at Resort World Manila said Carlos spoke to him in fluent Filipino.

Some online commenters claimed it was not a “lone wolf” attack, and that at least four terrorist accomplices were involved. National police chief General Ronald dela Rosa said no one was killed, but a few hours later it turned out that 37 people who hid in closets and washrooms on the casino’s second floor to escape the gunman suffocated from smoke inhalation after Carlos set fire to gambling tables and slot machines.

The police chief repeated a claim that police shot and killed the suspect, but his subordinates cleared the air later by revealing that one of the responding armed security guards shot and wounded Carlos, who then apparently withdrew to a hotel room, covered himself in a blanket, doused it with petrol and lit it before shooting himself dead in the head.

Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde shows reporters a picture of gunman Jessie Javier Carlos, a 42-year-old Filipino who was allegedly behind an attack on the Resorts World Manila casino Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The confusion was further fueled by claims that IS took responsibility for the attack. A couple of hours after Carlos commenced his rampage, the SITE Intelligence Group—which monitors terrorist attacks and chat rooms worldwide—claimed that the Resorts World Manila assault was IS-inspired and orchestrated.

Such reports, combined with Filipino security forces inability to contain the violence in Marawi City, understandably rang security alarm bells in Manila. Yet many Filipinos are reluctant to be led into a martial law trap similar to the shadowy security situation in 1972 that allowed former President Ferdinand Marcos to rule with an unaccountable iron fist for nearly two decades.

A survey conducted earlier this year revealed that 74% of Filipinos disagree with using martial law to solve security crises. After placing Mindanao under martial law in response to the siege of Marawi City, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would place the entire country under emergency rule if the security situation in Mindanao spread to other regions.

A security guard stops photographers from entering the vicinity of Resorts World Manila after gunshots and explosions were heard in Pasay City. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The Resorts World Manila incident touched a raw nerve with many Filipinos, a contradictory combination of fear of terrorism and paranoia about a new era of strongman-led martial law.

The former fear, in retrospect, seems for now misplaced. Reports have revealed that Carlos was a compulsive gambler who lost millions of pesos in local casinos. Investigations revealed that he sold his pickup truck, his family’s property and was even fired from his job in the Finance Department over irregularities in his Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

While some have suggested he may have been commissioned to stage what appeared to be a terrorist attack, hence paving the way for martial law in the capital, there is no evidence (yet) of any official complicity. Indeed, to their credit, police authorities have stood firm in their assessment that the casino attack was an apolitical armed robbery and arson, not terrorism.

Metro Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde said security camera footage showed that Carlos fired his carbine into the air and not at the panicked punters around him, while his violent acts against gaming tables and slot machines were consistent with a compulsive gambler distraught and enraged by his past losses.

A security guard stands at attention in front of a memorial for those killed in the casino fire caused by a gunman at Resorts World Manila casino on June 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Much hinges now on what happens next. Certain of Duterte’s political allies, including House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, were quick to conclude that the casino assault was a terror attack that warranted tougher security measures.

Those shrill voices have been quieted for now but could quickly re-emerge at any new sign of violence, despite the country’s long history of insurgency.

Government critics had complained before the casino incident that Duterte had overreached his executive authority by declaring martial law in Mindanao without calling a joint session of Congress to deliberate the order.

But while the Resorts World Manila attack proved to be a false terror alarm, it has exposed a gnawing fear among Manila’s residents that Duterte and his allies may yet leverage to impose a new martial order in the name of security.