A suicide attack was conducted at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Jolo on January 27, 2019. It was a two-stage attack – the first improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in the middle of the church and the second at the church’s entrance. This attack took the lives of at least 20 and wounded more than 90. The military pinned Hatib Sawadjaan as the mastermind of the attack, a natural conclusion as the Sulu island chain is plagued with the presence of Sawadjaan’s group, Islamic State-Sulu. This attack raised the notoriety of Sawadjaan and successfully diverted resources away from hunting Abu Dar – a possible candidate as emir for the Islamic State (IS) of the Philippines after the death of Isnilon Hapilon in 2017.
Analysts are quick to highlight two trends in the Philippines based on the attack; the influx of foreign fighters and the adoption of suicide tactics. However, these two trends lead to a single phenomenon – the use of foreign fighters as suicide bombers. This strategy is deadly as groups retain trained local fighters while recruiting foreigners as suicide operatives — ultimately preserving the capability to hold an armed assault while dispensing deadly terrorist attacks.
Foreign Suicide Bombers in Philippines
The burnt and unclaimed body parts discovered at the site suggested that the attack was conducted by suicide bombers. Initial forensic assessments of the church attack found traces of ammonium nitrate, which can easily be attained with fertilizers. In this attack, the ammonium nitrate was used as the primary charge and was boosted by a high explosive. The first explosion destroyed most of the church pews, demonstrating the potency of their bomb-making expertise. These bomb designs are highly concealable and destructive. The Philippines National Police (PNP) claimed that nine such bombs were used in at least five attacks in South Mindanao since 2016.
The authorities were quick to note that the suicide attackers were Indonesians based on intelligence reports. It is unclear if the Lamitan accidental suicide bombing may have inspired this attack, but together these attacks might set a precedent for foreign suicide bombers in the Philippines. Suicide attacks are highly concealable, adaptable, and can cause mass casualties. Suicide bombings take an average of 9.7 lives per attack. This is a highly efficient method to wage war against the government.
Filipino terrorist groups have avoided suicide bombings because the Filipino Muslim tribes pride themselves as warriors; they prefer sustained combat to cowardly tactics. However, things might have changed after the accidental Lamitan suicide attack on July 31, 2018 which claimed 10 lives in exchange for the sacrifice of one foreign suicide bomber. The Lamitan suicide attack, delivered through a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), proved that suicide tactics are more efficient than any tactics used by terrorist groups in Philippines. The Jolo attack further cements the lethality of such a tactic.
Given apparent success and attention of the two suicide attacks, there might be deliberate efforts by groups in Philippines to recruit foreign suicide bombers for similar attacks. This would thereby allow groups to spend little of their own human resources and training to inflict a high number of casualties, while retaining their trained fighters for armed combat.
Hatib Sawadjaan’s Leadership
Organizational developments in the Philippines appears to align with the deadly trend. The Abu Sayyaf group, led by Radullan Sahiron, declined to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. This led to the Abu Sayyaf splintering into the Sahiron-led faction as well as IS-Basilan and IS-Sulu, led by Isnilon Hapilon and Hatib Sawadjaan, respectively. Furuji Indama succeeded as the leader of IS-Basilan after Hapilon was appointed emir of IS-Philippines while Sawadjaan continued to lead IS-Sulu. The core Islamic State did not declare another emir of IS-Philippines after the death of Hapilon in 2017. The leader of IS-Lanao, Abu Dar, is a possible candidate but tenacious pursuit from the authorities drove him into hiding thereby rendering him unable to coordinate efforts between groups. Sawadjaan was recently identified as the other possible candidate for emir.
Sawadjaan’s experience is instrumental to terrorist groups in the Philippines. As the leader of IS-Sulu, he manages the Ajang-Ajang group. This group is made up of the sons of deceased Abu Sayyaf members. They are responsible for various non-combat operations, which includes human smuggling. More importantly, Sawadjaan oversees islands in the Sulu Sea, the illegal gateway from East Sabah into mainland Mindanao. This allows IS-Sulu to dictate the flow of foreign fighters. Sawadjaan’s leadership can heavily influence the strategic shift of IS-affiliated groups to recruit foreigners as suicide bombers.
Links with the Islamic State (IS)
There is a disturbing link between the Abu Sayyaf splinter groups with the core Islamic State. Shortly after the Jolo attack, Amaq News Agency – often viewed as the official IS news channel – disseminated a notice claiming responsibility for the attack. We saw a similar pattern after other significant incidents relating to IS-Basilan, such as the Lamitan attack and IS-Sulu’s successful defense against the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) on November 19, 2018.
Information about the Jolo attack was disseminated on various IS-affiliated Telegram and Facebook channels. In addition to the claim of responsibility, photographic details of the church bombing were also shared to IS sympathizers in Southeast Asia. The prompt, detailed report on these incidents demonstrates the tight contact between IS-Sulu and IS-Basilan with IS-Central.
Close ties between the groups might signal other forms of collaboration. IS-Sulu and IS-Basilan might be seeking seed funding from their terrorist endeavors. Successful large-scale attacks might be conducted to shift the Islamic State’s attention to invest in Philippines. Such attention and investment would also attract foreign fighters to migrate to Philippines, increasing the strength of local terrorist groups in Philippines.
The most effective strategy against suicide attacks in Philippines is to deny terrorists groups access to foreign bombers. The Philippine authorities must work with Malaysia and Indonesia to harden its national borders. The trilateral maritime cooperation at the Sulu-Celebes Sea could be improved to incorporate shallow water patrols to increase the detectability of smuggled fighters.
Additionally, the military defeat of Abu Sayyaf is central to addressing the Islamist threat in Philippines. The AFP and PNP must continue their unyielding assault against the Abu Sayyaf splinter groups. However, the excessive use of force would only be detrimental to the social fabric of Mindanao. The Philippines must focus on appropriate training and equipping for shallow water operations to combat the IS threat along the Sulu Sea. The AFP and PNP can also consider coordinating their land-sea operations to corner these militants more effectively.
Kenneth Yeo Yaoren is a Research Analyst in the International Centre of Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a specialist unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based in Singapore.