By Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
The United States has pledged $300 million to boost intelligence gathering in the Philippines, its long-time defense treaty ally, following a terrorist bombing that killed about two dozen people at a church in southern Jolo island last month, the Filipino government said Monday.
Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Manila welcomed the American “commitment in this particular matter in fighting terrorism,” but he did not say when the aid money would become available.
“It only shows that our military alliance with the United States remains very strong. As we all know by now and the world, terrorism knows no boundaries, politics, religion and creed,” Panelo said.
“It is the new evil in the world that strikes at every country and every continent, and all member-nations of the United Nations really should help and cooperate with each other to combat and crush terrorism,” he said.
Terrorists have gained a foothold in the southern region of Mindanao, Panelo said, stressing that twin bombs had killed at least 23 people at the church in Jolo. The government earlier said that 22 people were killed in the Jan. 27 attack, but it later adjusted the death toll upward.
President Rodrigo Duterte had blamed “suicide bombers” working with the militant Abu Sayyaf Group, and other Filipino officials said they were looking at possible involvement by foreign bombers in the plot. But those angles have not yet been proven, and so far local police have taken only five Abu Sayyaf suspects into custody in connection with the attack.
The suspects allegedly worked with Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf militant whom the U.S. recently described as the likely new de facto leader of the Islamic State (IS) in the region after the death of Isnilon Hapilon in October 2017.
Hapilon, a former top Abu Sayyaf commander, was the acknowledged head of the IS extremist group in the Philippines when he and other militants took over the city of Marawi in May 2017. That led to a five-month battle with government forces that destroyed the Islamic city and left 1,200 people dead, a majority of them militants.
The government was forced to accept the help of Australia and the United States in defeating the militants at Marawi. Both allies provided crucial intelligence support to the Philippine forces.
‘A foothold in the region’
Since the hostilities ended in Marawi, the south has grappled with ongoing terrorist threats – including a bomb attack on Basilan that left at least 10 dead in 2018, and a bombing at a mall in Cotabato City that killed two people on New Year’s Eve 2019.
As was the case with the Jolo attack, IS claimed responsibility for the Basilan bombing, saying it deployed a foreign militant. The government, however, played down the claim and charged several top Abu Sayyaf militants for the incident.
“Of course, in Mindanao, as we all know, terrorists apparently have gained a foothold in that region and they have unleashed in fact bombs that killed our soldiers, as well as our civilians,” Panelo said.
But while the attacks created panic and fear, they were not enough to derail a crucial vote on Jan. 21 that expanded a Muslim autonomous region in the south. The Abu Sayyaf as well as other Muslim factions voiced anger over the vote and vowed to carry out attacks.
However, in a second stage to the vote on Feb. 6, a majority of residents of six towns in Lanao del Norte province, who had not cast ballots in the first stage of the plebiscite, voted against ratifying the Bangsamoro Organic Law that frames the autonomous region, reports said.
Panelo said the government and the military were “relentlessly pursuing these mass murderers, even as some of them as we all know by now have been criminally charged and presently detained.”
“And we call on the people of Mindanao specifically to be vigilant and to report to authorities any terroristic act or any suspicion that any act of terrorism will be committed so that this can be prevented,” he said, urging everyone to be vigilant.
New coast guard facility
In other news related to the U.S.-Filipino alliance, the American embassy announced Monday that it and the Philippines had jointly unveiled a new maritime training facility in Bulacan province, near Manila.
The new Outboard Motor Center of Excellence facility, funded with 39 million pesos (U.S. $746,911) in aid money from Washington will enhance the Philippine Coast Guard’s capacity to train its workforce and sustain its equipment, according to a statement from the embassy.