Two lethal explosions targeting a Catholic church on Sunday rocked the Philippine southern island province of Sulu, the known bailiwick of the Islamic State-inspired Abu Sayyaf Group. At least 18 were killed and 83 wounded, the Philippine military said.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), condemned the bomb attack, which erupted at around 8:15 am in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, as an act of terrorism.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility late Sunday for the twin bombings through the militant group’s news agency Amaq, Reuters reported.

The Philippine National Police said as of 1:20 pm on Sunday that 27 were killed (20 civilians and 7 soldiers) and 77 others wounded in the attack. No group had claimed responsibility for the bombing as of 3pm on Sunday afternoon.

Besana told Asia Times military authorities are looking at the possible involvement of the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf Group in the twin blasts, which killed five soldiers and a Philippine Coast Guard officer who were guarding the church.

The other 12 fatalities were civilians attending the religious mass, Besana told Asia Times. Of the 83 injured, 16 were soldiers, two from the Philippine Coast Guard, while the rest were civilians, he said.

Besana said the second blast occurred at the parking area of the Catholic church, which is administered by the missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The improvised explosive device was placed inside the utility box of a motorcycle, the Philippine military said.

Authorities are now investigating whether Abu Sayyaf launched the twin bomb attacks in retaliation for the military’s recent ramped up campaign against the terror outfit’s sanctuaries in Sulu, a Muslim-dominated province in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Soldiers at the Catholic church where two bombs exploded in Jolo, Sulu province on January 27, 2019. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines via AFP

The deadly bombing came less than a week after a successful plebiscite to establish a new Bangsamoro region in the south, the centerpiece of a final peace deal between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group.

The military was cautious, however, to link the church bombing’s to the newly ratified Bangsamoro Organic Law, which was passed on January 21 and will grant wide-ranging autonomy to a newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Sulu voted against inclusion in the BARMM, which will replace the 28-year-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which was the outgrowth of a separate peace deal with a different Islamic Moro rebel group.

Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan II has challenged the legality of the BOL before the Supreme Court, arguing that its enactment is unconstitutional because it abolishes the existing ARMM, which he argues can only be done by amending the Constitution and not through an act of Congress.

The BARMM aims to bring just and lasting peace to the region after four decades of civil war that has impoverished the Muslim region, the country’s perennially poorest.

While President Rodrigo Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, has yet to install the BARMM, fighting erupted on Thursday between the military and remnants of the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group that laid siege to Mindanao’s Marawi City beginning in May 2017.

Over 350,000 civilians were uprooted in the five-month war that left the city in shambles.

Damaged houses and buildings are seen after government troops cleared the area from pro-Islamic State militant groups inside the war-torn area in Saduc proper, Marawi city, southern Philippines October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Damaged houses and buildings in Marawi city, October 22, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The military announced on Friday that troops overran the camp of the Maute Group remnants in Lanao del Sur, which voted for inclusion in the BARMM. Three Maute Group fighters were killed, while three others were arrested in an operation that injured three government soldiers.

Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega, Westmincom’s commander, ordered all military units to intensify security measures following the encounter in Lanao del Sur and the deadly twin explosions in Sulu. Both provinces are under the Westmincom’s command.

Octavio Dinampo, a peace advocate who teaches at the Mindanao State University in Jolo, said the explosions were so loud he heard them from his house in Sitio Tanjung in Indanan town, which is situated four kilometers from the blast site in downtown Jolo.

“The explosions came about 45 seconds apart. I thought our troops were firing 105 howitzers,” he said in a phone interview.

Dinampo said he believes the bomb attack in Sulu was perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf in retaliation for the losses they have suffered from continuing military offensives in the area.

Around five months ago, he said the military’s intelligence community intercepted plans that Abu Sayyaf would conduct bombings in downtown Jolo.

Dinampo, who was abducted by Abu Sayyaf in 2008, said the military then closed the street where the Catholic cathedral was located for about 20 days, but reopened it after the public complained of inconvenience.

“Now we have this very brutal and grisly attack inside a church…This is an act of reprisal and plain and simple terrorism to sow fear among civilians,” he said, condemning the incident.

Dinampo said there are six military brigades now operating in Sulu to neutralize Abu Sayyaf.

Philippine soldiers carry the bodies of Abu Sayyaf members group after an armed encounter in Jolo, Sulu province, September 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Nickee Butlangan

Last month, President Duterte activated the 11th Infantry Division in Jolo to augment troops currently deployed in the province, Abu Sayyaf’s traditional region of operation.

Dinampo said addressing the Abu Sayyaf problem with military might would likely not uproot the notorious extremist group that beginning in 2000 turned to kidnap-for-ransom to sustain its operations.

Abu Sayyaf abducted 21 hostages — 10 European and Middle Eastern tourists and 11 Malaysian workers — from a posh resort in Sipadan Island, Malaysia in 2000.

Abu Sayyaf is also responsible for the Philippines’ largest ever terror attack, the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing that killed 116 people. The attack, detonated with a 3.6 kilogram bomb, has been described as the world’s deadliest terror attack at sea.

Von Al Haq, spokesperson of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the MILF’s armed wing, condemned the blast and called on government authorities to thoroughly investigate the incident.
“This is a terrible act of terrorism,” he said.

Al Haq said that the MILF would conduct its own investigation into the attack and appealed for calm for an attack that risked sparking communal tensions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from the original to include Islamic State’s acknowledgement it was behind the attacks.