Militants in the southern Philippines carried out one of the largest attacks in over a year on January 27 when they conducted a twin bombing on the main cathedral in the city of Jolo, the capital of Muslim-majority Sulu province and one of the main heartlands of the militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) network. The first bomb exploded inside the church during mass, and 12 to 15 seconds later a second bomb exploded outside its entrance. The devices were reportedly detonated by cell phones and were wrapped in galvanized steel sheets that both concealed the devices and acted as shrapnel, a method commonly used by local insurgents (Rappler, January 28). The blasts killed 17 civilians and six security personnel—most of the latter were killed by the second blast as they responded to the first explosion. Islamic State (IS)’s Amaq news agency claimed credit for the explosions, although it incorrectly claimed that the attack was conducted by two suicide bombers.
This was the single most fatal attack in the southern Philippines since a pro-IS faction of ASG— known as the Maute Group after the two Maute brothers who led it—seized the city of Marawi in southern Mindanao in May 2017, holding it for five months until defeated by the military. The Philippines security forces investigating the incident said that a known ASG militant, Alias Kamah, was caught on surveillance footage outside the church shortly before the blasts (Philippine News Agency, January 29). They added that he is the brother of Surakah Ingog, a former leader of an ASG sub-group known as Ajang-Ajang and said that others involved in the bombing appear to be relatively young individuals related to other deceased militants. This assessment is highly plausible, as ASG networks have historically been based on close kinship links, as illustrated by the Maute Brothers themselves. The authorities had also recently blamed the Ajang-Ajang group for a small bombing at a mall in Cotabatu City, also in Mindanao, on New Year’s Eve (ABS-CBN, December 31, 2018).
The timing of the latest attack is almost certainly related to the major referendum held in southern Mindanao six days earlier on January 21 on whether to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which would create a new autonomous region—Bangsamoro Autonomous Region—in southern Mindanao. This will grant significant autonomy to many Muslim-majority areas and allow a limited application of Sharia law. The government hopes these concessions will help dampen long-standing Islamist separatist insurgencies in the area. Overall, the BOL was approved by 89 percent of those who voted. However, in Sulu province, where the Jolo attack occurred, 53 percent voted against the proposal, spurred by strong opposition from local political, ethnic, and religious leaders.
The “no” vote in Sulu partly reflects fears by the locally dominant Tausug ethnic group that they would be marginalized in the new, larger autonomous region by members of the Maguindanao ethnic group. This group is particularly worried about being sidelined by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a Maguindanao-dominated Islamist insurgent group which signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, and has since been the government’s key partner in the creation of the new autonomous region. The “no” vote also reflects local nostalgia for the largely independent Sulu Sultanate, which existed from 1405 to the early 1900s, and this historical memory continues to fuel separatist and ethno-nationalist feeling in Sulu. Despite this opposition, however, Sulu will nonetheless be incorporated in the new autonomous region, as it was already part of the area’s smaller existing autonomous zone. This is seen in Sulu as an injustice and has aroused considerable anger.
The high profile attack on the cathedral was, therefore, likely an attempt by ethnic Tausug ASG members to demonstrate the group’s opposition to the unpopular new agreement, to show its defiance of the national government (as exemplified in this instance by the Church and Christians, who are seen by most Sulu locals as foreign incomers from northern areas), and depicting itself as willing to defend Tausug aspirations toward greater independence and an eventual restoration of the Sulu Sultanate. For ASG, the attack is a way to reassert their relevance during a time of dramatic political change, to appeal to members of the local population aggrieved by the referendum outcome and to position themselves as defenders of Sulu’s historical memory and its aspirations to regain sovereignty in the future. This agenda neatly dovetails with ASG’s own more religiously-inspired vision of declaring an independent “Islamic state” in the area and imposing a hardline form of Sharia law.
The attack was heavily driven by local ethnic and political factors, and the role of IS itself appears highly limited. The group’s online claim via Amaq—which is likely run by IS militants in Iraq, Syria or Turkey—likely reflects some contact with ASG members in Sulu. Either ASG or IS members may have deliberately mischaracterized the attack as a suicide bombing in order to inflate its significance. The unusually large death toll, however, does not indicate increased militant capabilities deriving from any returning foreign fighters or closer links with militants abroad. Instead, the attack was a politically-motivated decision to use existing bomb-making skills to strike a soft civilian target rather than government or military assets, which is more common in Sulu.
That said, the attack shows that ASG militants in the southern Philippines will continue to evolve and seek to take advantage of local political developments and exploit ethnic rivalries while leveraging the IS brand to raise their profile locally and internationally to attract foreign funding and recruits, particularly from regional sympathizers in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and to a lesser extent the Middle East. Meanwhile, IS will continue to benefit from its relationship with ASG groups as this enables its beleaguered leaders to claim that they continue to enjoy support from Muslims around the world, which they can in turn leverage for their own fundraising and recruitment.
Philippine militants will continue to win support in fringe areas where they can exploit local issues—such as Sulu in the much larger southern Mindanao area. However, the planned launch of the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in 2022 along with the resulting increase in autonomy and some implementation of Sharia is likely to significantly undercut support for militancy, especially among the Maguindanao ethnic group, as occurred when Indonesia granted similar concessions in its own restive province of Aceh in 2005. Although much will depend on the success of this new regional administration, particularly its ability to effectively represent the area’s full range of ethnic groups, this development is likely to reduce the appeal of pro-IS groups in these wider areas over time.