KUALA LUMPUR: The Armed Forces of Philippines has dismissed Islamic State’s claim that Tuesday’s (Jul 31) van blast in southern Philippines was carried out by a foreign suicide bomber.
The van exploded at a security checkpoint in Lamitan city on the Basilan island, killing 10 people, including the driver.
The army said its initial investigations indicated that the vehicle could have been detonated remotely.
The blast came just days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enacted an autonomy law in an attempt to bring peace to the conflict-torn Mindanao region.
“Our initial investigations show that it is not a suicide bombing as the driver stopped his van some 60 metres from the security checkpoint and asked people to help push the vehicle,” Lieutenant-Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesman of the armed forces' Western Mindanao Command, told Channel NewsAsia.
'BOMB COULD HAVE BEEN DETONATED REMOTELY'
“If he were really a suicide bomber, he would have tried to ram the van filled with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) into the security personnel at the checkpoint. Also, there was a good 20 minutes before the van exploded, indicating that someone else could have remotely detonated the explosives with a device,” Besana added.
Security analyst Professor Rommel Banlaoi told Channel NewsAsia that a burnt cover of a mobile phone was recovered from the blast site.
“The presence of a cellphone part indicated the likelihood that somebody other than the driver may have remotely fired the IED,” said Prof Banlaoi, who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
Prof Banloai said a drum believed to contain ammonium nitrate, fuel and oil was also recovered from the scene.
“So far the evidence found tend to negate the IS propaganda claim that the blast was a case of a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED),” Prof Banlaoi added.
Islamic State East Asia claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by a Moroccan named Abu Khatir Al-Maghribi, but Besana dismissed this.
“IS likes to claim every attack. We have yet to establish the identity of van’s driver as his body was in a bad state. However, initial reports on the ground indicate he did not appear foreign,” said Besana.
“If he were foreign-looking, the security personnel would have detained him for questioning.”
The military believes that the attack could have been carried out by a faction of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group, led by Mike Lijal, alias Abu Fati.
“We have persistent reports that point to Abu Sayyaf as the group responsible for the IED explosion in Lamitan city, Basilan,” Armed Forces of Philippines spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo said in a press release.
ATTACK TO 'DRAW IN FUNDING FROM ABROAD'
According to Arevalo, the Abu Sayyaf group had demanded 50,000 pesos in extortion money which was refused by the local government. The group then carried out the bomb attack with the aim of drawing funding from abroad.
“By committing this dastardly and cowardly act, the Abu Sayyaf group wanted to reverse the decline in their manpower and firearms; to entice fresh recruits; to portray strength as a force capable of terrorist attack; and to draw foreign funding,” said Arevalo.
On Wednesday (Aug 1), 11 Abu Sayyaf members surrendered to the military on Sulu island, said the press release.
“Nevertheless, we are not discounting the possibility that they (IS) are indeed responsible - just as there is also a possibility that another group besides the Abu Sayyaf group could be responsible in that dastardly and cowardly terrorist act,” Arevalo said.
GOVERNMENT INTELLIGENCE INDICATED FOREIGN FIGHTERS, INCLUDING MALAYSIANS, WERE EXPECTED TO ARRIVE IN BASILAN
Security analyst Prof Banlaoi said a government intelligence report indicated that as early as Jul 19, Abu Fati and four others were planning to conduct a bombing operation in Lamitan “at any opportune time”.
“As of noon on Jun 30, it was reported that six unidentified Malaysian nationals were expected to arrive in Tuburan, Basilan, presumably in connection with the terror plot,” he added.
Military spokesman Besana said investigators believe that the van was meant to be deployed in downtown Lamitan on Tuesday, at a parade involving school children.
“If the van detonated there, many people would have died,” said Besana.