By Amy Chew
Ransom paid to free an Indonesian fisherman who was snatched by Abu Sayyaf extremists funded Sunday’s deadly bombings at a cathedral in the Philippines, an ex-militant and a source with knowledge of Filipino investigations into the attack told BenarNews.
On Jan. 15, militants with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) freed Indonesian fishing boat captain Samsul Saguni after holding him hostage for four months on Jolo island. Twelve days later, twin bombs exploded during a Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo town, capital of Sulu province in the far southern Philippines.
The blasts killed at least 21 people and wounded scores more, Philippine authorities said.
Ransom money handed to the kidnappers is believed to have funded the bomb plot, according to a former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant based in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, located on nearby Borneo island.
“This attack was on their calendar. This is done by the pro-Islamic State faction of ASG and they have been planning it for quite some time. They were just waiting for the ransom money, which they used for the bombing,” Abdullah Sandakan, the former JI member, told BenarNews.
“Twelve days is more than enough time for them to source and buy the explosives, prepare their people to carry out the bombing,” he added.
JI, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, was blamed for Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack, the Bali bombings that killed 202 people 17 years ago.
Samsul and a crewmate were abducted from their boat in waters off Sabah before being taken to Jolo island. His fellow hostage, Usman Yunos, escaped in mid-December, Philippine officials said. Since Samsul was free, Indonesian officials have denied that the government paid ransom for his freedom.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s attack, the Philippines military has pinned suspicion on a pro-Islamic State faction of Abu Sayyaf.
Meanwhile, a Mindanao-based source with knowledge of probes around the Jan. 27 attack was blunt when asked whether the money paid to secure the Indonesian hostage’s freedom was used to finance the Jolo bombings.
“Of course. This is obvious,” the source told BenarNews.
“I understand the ransom money was paid by the boat’s owner, not the Indonesian government, and it was a huge sum of money,” the source added.
Abdullah said part of the ransom money also was used to pay villagers who sheltered the militants.
“The money is given to the villagers for sheltering them and also to win them over,” Abdullah said.
More kidnappings expected
Abdullah, the ex-JI militant, warned that more kidnappings would take place around the waters of eastern Sabah and the Sulu Sea to raise funds for terror attacks and other activities.
“The kidnappings will not stop and neither will the bombings. The success of the Jolo bombing may even encourage them to try to carry out bombings in Manila,” Abdullah warned.
The bombings occurred two days after Philippine elections officials confirmed that a majority in the mostly Muslim provinces of the south had cast “yes” ballots on Jan. 21 to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
The law aims to give the south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s 4 million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament and control many local government functions, including taxation and education. It would also allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Sharia law into their justice system.
Residents of Jolo, however, voted to reject its inclusion in the Muslim autonomous region promised to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former rebel group that would gain administrative power under BOL.
‘The new land of jihad’
The bombing sent a strong message that extremists would not settle for anything less than an Islamic State in the southern Philippines, according to a Filipino peace negotiator.
“Is this deliberate? I think so. This is to send the strong message that the answer to the Mindanao conflict is no less than the establishment of an Islamic State,” said professor Benedicto Bacani, executive director of the Mindanao-based Institute for Autonomy and Governance, a think-tank that took part in the negotiations that led to a 2014 peace deal between Manila and the MILF rebels.
“Targeting Christians shows that the group behind this espouses the intolerant and extremist brand of Islam,” Bacani said.
Foreign IS fighters may have helped carry out the bombings at the church, according to Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“Based on the scale, timing, target, IED used and impact of the bombings, IS foreign terrorist fighters may have assisted the ASG to plan and carry out the twin-bombings,” Banlaoi said.
“The twin bombings were well planned and well-executed. The ASG could not do it without IS direction,” he said.
Foreign IS fighters were also in Mindanao to assist their local counterparts to mount attacks, he said.
“Based on official intelligence estimates, 44 foreign terrorist fighters are active in Mindanao,” Banlaoi said, noting that these included 24 Indonesians and seven Malaysians.
Asked whether the number of foreign fighters was growing, he replied: “We do not know if it is increasing, stable or decreasing. IS activities in Mindanao can undermine the successful implementation of the BOL and can cause continuing insecurities in the region.”
“IS regards Mindanao as the new land of jihad, alternative home base and a safe haven,” Banlaoi said.