The year closed with a bang on the volatile southern Philippine island of Mindanao, with the military blaming an Islamic State-aligned insurgent group for a lethal explosion that targeted and killed civilians.
A powerful bomb exploded on December 31 at a baggage counter of the South Seas mall in Cotabato City, killing at least two and wounding 34 others while locals who were doing last-minute New Year’s Day shopping.
The explosion came while rights-curbing martial law is in effect and the security sector remains on high alert in Mindanao. Reports suggest that the intelligence community had received information that terror groups were planning to carry out bomb attacks on the restive island.
While joint police and military investigations are still on going, regional military commander Major General Cirilito Sobejana accused the Islamic State-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as the likely culprit behind the bomb attack.
Sobejana said the blast could have been in retaliation for the military’s recent operations against the group in areas where it operates and hides in Maguindanao province. In some instances, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reportedly assisted government troops with the operation.
The BIFF broke from the MILF several years ago after the latter group opted to pursue autonomy through a peace deal with Manila rather than continue fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.
President Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s first chief executive to hail from Mindanao, imposed martial law in the 27-province island on May 23 last year after the Islamic State-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi City.
The urban warfare, an unprecedented spasm of violence which uprooted over 350,000 civilians, lasted for five months and left the core of Marawi in shambles and over 1,000 people dead, mostly Islamic militants.
The New Year’s eve bombing has sent spooked Western governments of an enduring terror risk. The United Kingdom was quick to warn its citizens from traveling to Mindanao in the wake of the latest bomb attack.
“Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at anytime and anywhere in the country, including in places visited by foreigners, like airports, shopping malls, public transport, including the metro system, and places of worship,” the UK government advisory said.
On December 21, days before the Cotabato City bombing, the United States issued a security alert urging its nationals to exercise caution while traveling and residing in the Philippines.
Last year, Washington issued a worldwide caution due to the continuing threats from terrorist groups against US citizens and interests abroad. In November 2016, an improvised explosive device was found close to the US embassy in Manila, which was safely detonated by bomb experts.
“The holiday season is a prime time for criminal and terrorist activity,” the prescient American alert said. “Any public event that draws holiday crowds can be a target for terrorist groups seeking publicity for their cause.”
The European Union and Japan issued sympathies to the victims of the latest bombing, the fourth deadly explosion to be blamed on Islamic State adherents to hit Mindanao in 2018.
On July 31, a car bomb exploded in Lamitan City in Basilan that killed 10 persons. Authorities blamed the Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf Group for that attack.
Two explosions also rocked the town of Isulan, Sultan Kudarat province last August and September, both of which authorities blamed on the BIFF.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama denied his group was behind the New Year’s Eve bomb attack.
He claimed the attack could have been motivated by unassociated elements opposed to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the key component of the MILF-government peace deal signed in 2014.
Both the government and MILF are now campaigning for a plebiscite to be held on January 21 and February 6 to ratify the BOL and its creation of a new autonomous Bangsamoro region (BARMM) to replace the 28-year-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
“The government should conduct a deeper investigation as the bomb attack could be motivated by those who want to spoil the BOL,” Mama told local media.
Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think tank said the ARMM, which will be subsumed by the BARMM, has been deeply penetrated by Islamic State followers.
He identified the Islamic State affiliates as the BIFF, the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Ansar Al Khilafa Philippines.
“ISIS Philippines is discreetly recruiting members like wild fire and it has established strong sleeper cells in key vulnerable cities in Mindanao,” the security analyst claimed in an interview with Asia Times.
For his part, Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr condemned the latest bombing in Mindanao and appealed for calm “in these trying times when our resolve to pursue just and lasting peace is being tested.”
Galvez, who commanded government troops during last year’s Marawi siege, described the explosion as an “isolated case,” while assuring that “our security forces are on top of the situation.”
“Let us not allow this incident to discourage us to unite and act as one in our collective aspiration to achieve just and enduring peace not just in Mindanao, but in the whole country,” he said.
MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim described the bomb attack directed at civilians as an “act of cowardice, inhuman and atrocious.”
“In the past, similar incidents have been resorted to in order to derail the Bangsamoro peace process. We must forge ahead with the same resolve as before so that we may finally achieve peace,” the MILF chief said.
As Islamic State’s threat lingers in Mindanao, Murad urged voters to ratify the Bangsamoro law “so that a government can be established that can really protect and promote the peace and security of the place and its peoples.”
“This is not the time to be divided. This is the time to stand united,” he said.