By Richel V. Umel, Froilan Gallardo and Roel Pareño
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a bomb attack at a Catholic Mass on Sunday that killed four people and injured dozens in the southern Philippines, counter-terrorism experts said.
The explosion occurred at 7:30 a.m. at the Mindanao State University gymnasium in Marawi city, which was taken over by militants linked to IS in 2017. During the five-month battle that followed, at least 1,200 militants, soldiers, police and civilians were killed before the military regained control of the city.
In a statement Sunday, IS said on its website that “soldiers of the Caliphate detonated an explosive device on a large gathering of Christians … in the city of Marawi,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an American counterterrorism consultancy. IS also said it was behind the attack on Telegram, Reuters reported.
Earlier in the day, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. blamed foreign terrorists for the “heinous” attack, without elaborating.
The United States on Monday condemned the attack in Marawi and said it stood with Filipinos in rejecting this act of violence.
“We mourn those killed in the attack, and our thoughts are with the injured,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said in a statement.
Despite IS’ claim of responsibility, Philippine security officials said they were still investigating with a focus on the bomb signature, which would help identify the terrorist group.
The military said ordnance experts who scoured the gymnasium after the blast have recovered fragments of an improvised bomb commonly used by local militants in the south of the country.
“The AFP is validating the claims made by the ISIS … as well as the involvement of the Daulah Islamiyah-Maute Group in this heinous act of terror,” Col. Xerxes Trinidad, the spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told BenarNews.
“Daulah Islamiyah” means “Islamic State” in the local language. Its membership comprises fighters from several Filipino militant factions, including the Maute Group, which had provided men and logistics during the siege of Marawi by pro-IS fighters in 2017.
“We are on heightened alert to ensure the safety of the public and that the perpetrators responsible will be apprehended and neutralized,” Trinidad said.
Seven civilians wounded in the bombing remained in hospital, while about 40 others who were treated for less serious injuries had been released, Trinidad added.
Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said IS’ claim to the attack was credible.
“The admission came from IS itself and in fact, Sheikh Abdullah Alhamsari, the self-proclaimed spokesperson of IS Philippines, reiterated the confirmation that they are responsible for the deadly blast,” he said in an interview with the ANC television news cable channel.
‘Terror threat not declining’
On Sunday, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said the bombing could have been a revenge attack for operations against local extremist groups linked to IS.
“That is one angle we are looking into,” Brawner told reporters. “Based on the evidence that we gathered, there is a big percentage that points to them.”
The bombing occurred days after security forces killed 11 Muslim militants identified as members of a local Daulah Islamiyah cell in the southern province of Maguindanao.
Brawner also said on Sunday the military had killed two Islamic militants it identified as Mundi Sawadjaan and Jalandoni Lucsadato in coordinated actions.
Authorities have identified Mundi as a sub-leader of IS-linked Abu Sayyaf and the nephew of the late Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who was thought to be the group’s leader before his death in 2020.
Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan masterminded a January 2019 bombing at Jolo’s Catholic church, killing 23 people including an Indonesian couple blamed for the suicide attack, according to Philippine authorities.
The Philippine government has vowed to eliminate IS from its territory and has mounted a series of successful operations against Muslim militants in the volatile south in recent years, including killing the suspected IS emir for Southeast Asia earlier this year.
Sunday’s attack will renew focus on the strength of the group in the country.
“What we have learned from the Dec. 2 incident is that those terrorist threats in the Philippines are not declining,” said Banlaoi.
“Threats are not disappearing because there are still remnants associated with IS willing to wreak havoc. And that is why we need to still be vigilant in order to prevent them from mounting other incidents.”
While the Philippines is predominantly Catholic, the southern part of the archipelago in Mindanao is largely Muslim.
Pope Francis offered his prayers for Filipinos to have the strength “to overcome every evil with good.”
The Pope relayed his message via Telegram to Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Peña through the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, southern Philippines