Amid the Philippines’ war on Covid-19, the spotlight points back to the tiny island of Sulu with the recent violent incidents that occurred in the province.
Around noontime on August 24, twin explosions rocked the island’s main town of Jolo. An improvised explosive device placed in a parked motorcycle went off around 11:55 AM near a grocery store in Barangay Walled City. An hour later, the second bomb blew up within the proximity of the first explosion. The 35th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army noted that a woman walked up to a group of soldiers securing the area and “suddenly blew herself up”. The explosions wounded seventy-five people and killed fifteen, including eight members of the security forces, six civilians, and the reported bomber.
Particularly singling out Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan as the mastermind, the military was quick to point at the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) as the perpetrator of the attack. The incident had also prompted a wave of discussions on the development of violent extremism and, in particular, raised alarms on cases of suicide bombing, a scenario once considered rare in the Philippine setting. These fears stem from concerns that the August 24 incident is the latest case in a string of reported suicide bombing attacks in the country over the course of the last three years. The most significant case happened in January 2019 when an IS-supporting Indonesian couple blew themselves up inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel resulting in the deaths of twenty-three people and wounding of 109 more. Other cases include the 2018 Lamitan bombing, June 2019 Indanan suicide attacks, and the September 2019 bombing among others.
It is along these lines that the August 24 incident showcased the multi-layered complexity of the security context in Sulu. The incident has been related to the violent confrontation that transpired in June 29 wherein four soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were killed when they were fired upon by the police in Barangay Bus-Bus, Jolo. Contrasting reports from both the police and the military resulted to tensions between the two institutions, with the military declaring the incident as a ‘rubout’ and accusing the Philippines National Police (PNP) of covering up the misdeeds of its personnel. On the other hand, the police stated that one of the slain soldiers is involved in the drug matrix and that several of his clan relatives were arrested and killed in anti-illegal drug operations in the province. The military insists that the soldiers were deployed to track down female terrorists about to carry a suicide bombing. In fact, a military chief implied that the August 24 bombing could have been avoided had the ‘setback’ against the ASG campaign that was the June 29 incident did not happen.
Beyond the debacle currently concerning the security sector in Sulu, it is important to be reminded that the ASG is not a monolithic group. After the demise of its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani, ASG became heavily factionalized by the late 90s and had eventually splintered into numerous localized factions each with its own leader. In Sulu, particularly in Patikul, former MNLF-turned-ASG leader Radullah Sahiron remain well-respected by other commanders but another name, Hatib Sawadjaan, gained notoriety notably after pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and being proclaimed as the new emir of Islamic State of East Asia after Isnilon Hapilon’s death in Marawi. Mundi, the brains behind the August 24 terror attck, is Sawadjaan’s nephew. Sawadjaan is also recognized by the mostly youth-dominated Ajang-Ajang group as their leader, although they oftentimes operate of their own accord. There are many other ASG factions scattered across the province and they do not necessarily share the same ideology – the best example of which is Sawadjaan and Sahiron, the latter not pledging to IS. An added layer of complexity in the web of affiliations are other prominent political and security actors, such as MNLF leaders and local politicians, who remain influential and are still active in the conflict and security landscape of the province. This complexity displays itself on usually conflicting accounts on the premise of violent incidences in Sulu and the often-obfuscated facts that are presented in mainstream media.
Given this air of ambiguity, particularly concerning sensitive stories on security and group relations, it pays to be prudent in the face of limited knowledge. In as much as the public needs to remain vigilant, drawing the incredibly intricate context of Sulu with the broad paintbrush of radical Islamism will only serve to exacerbate the fragile situation of the province in line with the concerns on the controversial Anti-terror Act.