Manila, Philippines – Metro Manila’s 29,000-strong police force was put on “heightened alert” on Thursday after the deadly bombing by suspected Islamic militants two days earlier killed 11 people in Basilan province.
Chief Supt. Guillermo Eleazar, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) director, told the Inquirer that he issued the directive although the police had monitored no “imminent threats” to the metropolis, which remained “safe and secure.”
The Islamic State (IS) jihadi group claimed responsibility for the bombing in Lamitan City, Basilan, calling it a “martyrdom operation,” or a suicide attack, by a Moroccan jihadist.
The military quickly dismissed fears that the bombing was a suicide attack and the IS claim as propaganda, saying IS had a history of making bogus claims. It instead pointed to the Abu Sayyaf as responsible for the blast.
“We do not want a spillover here of what happened in Basilan,” Eleazar said, explaining the new security measure.
“But the public should live their normal lives and not let themselves be affected by this. The elevated alert status should give the public peace of mind rather than alarm them,” he added.
As a result of the high alert, there will be more road checkpoints and increased police patrols, he said.
At least half of Metro Manila’s police force will be on round-the-clock duty and their leaves indefinitely suspended.
The NCRPO chief said the police would coordinate with other security agencies to monitor the presence of potential terrorists and their supporters.
Call for vigilance
Eleazar appealed to the public to be vigilant not only in their surroundings but also with “people we interact with.”
Tuesday’s blast from a homemade bomb inside a van killed one soldier, five government militiamen and four civilians close to an Army and militia outpost at Barangay Bulanting. The foreign-looking driver of the van was also killed.
The Armed Forces spokesperson, Col. Edgard Arevalo, said one of IS’s bogus claims was the attack on the Resorts World hotel and casino in June 2017 by a lone gunman, who was later identified as a debt-ridden gambler who had no connection to the jihadi group.
Arevalo said findings from an initial investigation pointed to the Abu Sayyaf group under Furuji Indama as behind the bombing in Lamitan.
He said the group tried to extort P50,000 from the city government prior to the blast and that the van’s destination was “the heart of Lamitan City on the culmination day of the City Nutrition Month” where thousands of schoolchildren were scheduled to take part in a parade and street dancing.
“There is no IS footprint [in the blast]. There is no conclusive indicator that the group is behind it,” Arevalo told reporters.
The attack came less than a week after President Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would establish a new Bangsamoro region and parliament to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as part of the 2014 peace deal between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said the blast posed a challenge for the MILF and was a rejection of Mr. Duterte’s peace overtures to the Abu Sayyaf.
“The people behind the attack are not supporting the Bangsamoro law. It’s a challenge for the MILF how they will address it,” Banlaoi said.
MILF also on alert
Condemning the bombing, MILF chair Murad Ebrahim ordered his commanders on Thursday to be on full alert for more terrorist actions and to coordinate with the military and police counterparts to thwart any attack.
“There will be no compromise with terrorists whose aims are to create chaos, destruction and bloodshed. No quarters shall be given to them and they must be defeated at once. They must not be allowed to grow,” Murad said in a statement.
On Aug. 1, a day after the bombing, the MILF central committee passed a resolution saying that its members “collectively and individually condemn this dastardly act as well as all other forms of violent extremism.”
“The MILF central committee views with deep concerns the latest upsurge of violence and terrorism in Mindanao particularly in Basilan. The wounds inflicted on our people and peace-loving people of Marawi City on May 23 last year are still unhealed and aching; and here again, signs are clear: The terrorists are not yet down and out,” the resolution said.
In Lamitan, a 58-year-old Islamic preacher is being detained on charges of illegal possession of explosives.
Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, the public affairs officer of the Western Mindanao Command, said Ustadz Jainul Mallaning Indalin was “invited” on Tuesday for questioning in connection with the bombing and was turned over to the Lamitan police after soldiers found a grenade inside his house at Barangay Maganda. The village is adjacent to Bulanting.
Indalin, speaking in Filipino, denied involvement in the attack. “I don’t know what they are talking about. I have not done anything wrong,” he said.
Besana said informants told the soldiers that Indalin knew the bomb would go off and had been helping foreign operatives reach Basilan from Malaysia.
Supt. Christopher Panapan, police chief of Lamitan, said charges of multiple murder and multiple serious physical injuries were also being prepared against him.