“This is a clear example of a lone wolf terrorist attack targeting civilians to inflict maximum loss of life and damage to property,” claimed Pantaleon Alvarez, speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives after a gunman rampaged through a posh casino and shopping complex in the heart of Manila.
“We must…secure Metro Manila and other urban centers from (Islamic State)-linked groups that we already know will attempt to kill and maim in pursuit of their jihadist ideology.”
Alvarez, a close ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, provided no further details for the basis of his judgment. But his characterization of the Resorts World Manila attack, which resulted in 38 casualties, including the suspected gunman, directly contradicted the assessment of other government authorities.
Hours into the attack, as the assailant used gunfire and explosives to terrorize individuals within the compound, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa immediately tried to downplay terrorism fears by claiming the attack was a botched robbery.
The Philippine police claimed, “We’re looking at robbery as an angle,” since the suspect “stole…barged into the storage room for casino chips…[then] put them inside his backpack but eventually left it. We have recovered the backpack.” Other officials, including the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief Director Oscar Albayalde, echoed the robbery motive.
But Rafael Alunan, another staunch Duterte ally and former interior secretary, suspected the assault was a terror attack given the fact that the Resorts World complex is frequented by foreigners, high-end shoppers and gamblers, and is perched directly in front of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
By definition, terrorism is the deliberate act of targeting civilians for the purpose of creating widespread fear and panic as part of a broader political objective to undermine the status quo.
To guard against possible terror attacks on the international airport, the government implemented a de facto no-fly zone in the area for a few hours, shutting down all NAIA terminals until the situation was under control. Airport authorities also stepped up their security, a clear acknowledgement of growing official concerns of a next attack.
In fact, Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, raising fears of more coordinated terrorist activities across the country and beyond. The casino assault coincides with the siege of Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao, where an Islamic State-affiliate militant group is violently confronting security forces.
As many as 175 people have been killed in the ensuing clashes, mostly from the rebel Maute Group as well as a significant number of foreign fighters.
The tough talking Filipino president successfully ran for office on a safety and security platform, promising to swiftly end the scourge of criminality and illegal drugs in the country. A year into office, the Philippines is instead confronting an increasingly unstable security environment as concerns over extrajudicial killings and terrorism undermine public safety and take a toll on investor confidence.
Opposition politicians and other government critics fear that Duterte may leverage the latest attack as a pretext to impose martial law across the entire country, eliminating democratic checks and balances in the process.
Many have drawn parallels to the shadowy situation in 1972, where a spate of bombings in Manila and a rising communist insurgency in the countryside paved the way for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of martial law and over a decade of iron-fisted rule.
They suspect another attack, small or large, in the capital or another urban area on the main island of Luzon could be enough to motivate the government to declare martial law nationwide.
The temptation for Duterte to suspend civil liberties and assume emergency powers is no doubt mounting. The president faced limited resistance from other branches of government, as well as civil society, when he nonchalantly declared martial law for the entire island of Mindanao, well beyond the epicenter of violence in Marawi City in the large island’s north.
If Duterte is considering national martial law, he has so far played his cards close to his chest since the casino attack. To the contrary, he has expressed his willingness to lift martial law in Mindanao as soon as the situation in Marawi City stabilizes, though he has promised a long and violent campaign against IS-linked militants.
Meanwhile, many are concerned about a possible police whitewash of the Resorts World attack, which has clear hallmarks of a terror attack in one of the most luxurious quarters of the national capital. To many Manila residents and families of the victims, government explanations seem far-fetched, including the notion the apparent lone gunman set himself ablaze and then subsequently shot himself in the head.
Considering the potential severe economic impacts of a terror attack on the crucial tourism sector, government officials have a clear incentive to downplay or obscure the details of the attack. The Duterte administration has already tried to deflect responsibility to the casino owners’ supposed lack of foresight and poor security measures.
Over the past year, investors have already been jittery due to rule of law concerns amid Dutetre’s brutal campaign on drugs, which has reportedly claimed an average of 1,000 lives per month.
The Marawi City siege and a widely suspected terror attack in a capital city business district will compound anxieties about political stability and undermine confidence in Duterte’s rule, precisely the scenario that could encourage the tough-talking leader to reach for stronger executive powers in the name of security.