Islamic State may have claimed responsibility for Sunday’s twin deadly explosions at a Catholic Church on the southern Philippine island province of Sulu, but the local terror affiliate that allegedly carried out the headline-making attacks is relatively unknown.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command, the military unit responsible for the area, said that the Adjang-Adjang Group detonated the fatal bombs in Sulu’s Jolo region, which was put on lockdown on Monday in a bid to capture the perpetrators.

One of the assailants was reportedly identified by investigators through CCTV footage, he said. As of Monday afternoon, officials said 20 were killed and 97 wounded in the blasts. President Rodrigo Duterte was scheduled to visit the blast site and victims on Monday afternoon.

Malacanang, the presidential palace in Manila, has vowed to pursue the perpetrators “to the ends of the earth.”

Adjang-Adjang, which means “Soldiers of the Martyrs”, is a subgroup of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group, a band of Islamic extremists classified by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

Abu Sayyaf, formed in the 1990s to fight for the creation of an independent Islamic state in the southern island of Mindanao, gained global notoriety in the 2000s after foreign tourists and workers in kidnapping-for-ransom operations.

In 2004, Abu Sayyaf staged the country’s deadliest terrorist attack by bombing a passenger ferry in Manila that killed 116 people.

Late Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who reputedly plotted the devastating months-long siege of Mindanao’s Marawi City in 2017, pledged allegiance to Islamic State chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. The surprise attack reputedly aimed to create an Islamic caliphate in the area.

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

While Abu Sayyaf is globally well-known, the military’s revelation on Sunday night that the deadliest bomb attack ever on a Catholic cathedral in Mindanao was carried out by an obscure subgroup known as Adjang-Adjang caught many analysts by surprise.

Besana claimed the Adjang-Adjang Group launched the attack to spoil a peace process underway in Mindanao as well as avenge the death by military forces last year of an Abu Sayyaf sub-leader he left unnamed.

“Adjang-Adjang (is a subgroup of the ASG) operating in urban areas like Jolo,” Besana said.

The deadly attack on the Catholic cathedral came six days after a January 21 plebiscite voted to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which will establish a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The new region will be replace the 28-year-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) formed in a peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a now dormant Islamic rebel group.

The BOL is central to a final peace deal reached between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group in 2014. Sulu voted against inclusion in the BARMM, but cannot legally opt out of the entity.

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In a separate statement, Westmincom said the Adjang-Adjang Group has been responsible in the past for the killings of soldiers and policemen in Jolo. “They are also blamed for other heinous crimes in the area,” it said without elaborating.

Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the fringe group is apparently motivated by vengeance, money and disdain against other religions.

“They are a sub-group of Abu Sayyaf composed of fathers and brothers of Abu Sayyaf members killed by the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines). They are composed of not more than 20 members,” Banlaoi told Asia Times.

“That group has been around for a long time and it is only now that they are being openly talked about,” he said, adding that it was the first major attack ever perpetrated by the group.

Banlaoi identified the alleged senior leaders of the group as a certain Wanir from Patikul, Sulu and Sonny Boy Sajirin. Other known leaders include Yasser Igasan, Hajan Sawadjaan and Idang Susukan, he added. None of the group’s alleged members could be reached by Asia Times for comment.

Octavio Dinampo, a peace advocate and professor at Mindanao State University in Jolo, said the Adjang-Adjang Group is composed of the orphans of MNLF members that founding MNLF chairman Nur Misuari purportedly neglected.

Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV
Abu Sayyaf rebels in the interior of the southern Philippine Jolo island in a file photo. Photo: Reuters / Philippine National Red Cross via Reuters TV

They were eventually recruited by another Abu Sayyaf leader, Radulan Sahiron, alias Commander Putol, to carry out criminal activities for the group, Dinampo told Asia Times.

“The members of the Adjang-Adjang Group are drug addicts or delinquents who are feared in Jolo town,” he claimed.

Dinampo said that the group was previously headed by Muammar Askali, alias Abu Rami, who was killed in an exchange with security forces in Inabanga, Bohol in April 2017; Sawadjaan reputedly leads a subgroup that operates a fast-craft used in piracy operations; while Sajirin is allegedly the leader of the Adjang-Adjang’s “Pasaribo” or “destroyer” wing.

The bombing attack clearly aimed to stir communal tensions. Catholic Church leaders in the area branded the lethal explosions at the cathedral as the “handiwork of devils.”

In a joint statement, prominent clergymen Cardinal Orlando Quevedo and Archbishop-elect Angelito Lampon described the twin bombings “as the most heinous desecration of a sacred place, on a sacred day, and at a sacred moment of worship.”

The duo belong to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate missionary group, which administers the bombed cathedral. “As former religious leaders of Jolo we totally condemn the criminal bombing of the Jolo Cathedral,” they said.