FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2019 - 12:00am

We are still in the early stages of the investigation into the murderous bombing at the Jolo Cathedral. But one detail, already known, jumps out at us.

Police investigators have determined that the bombs planted to kill parishioners as they worship and then soldiers as they responded to the first attack were different from all previous terrorist devices. In police lingo, the unique characteristics of improvised explosive devices compose a “signature.” Each bomb maker has a “signature,” identifiable from the chemicals used and the mechanics of the device.

There are few people with the skills, and the guts, to put together improvised explosive devices. This is a very dangerous craft. From the evidence so far gathered, it appears there is a new bomb maker in town – very likely a foreign fighter assigned to wreak havoc in the Southern Philippines.

Recall the mission undertaken by the ill-fated SAF 44 in Mamasapano was to arrest or kill a notorious Indonesian bomb maker. Because of his skills, that bomb maker ranked high up the hierarchy of wanted terrorists. The mission was accomplished but tragedy awaited the brave commandoes as they withdrew from the area.

The use of two bombs exploding after a brief interval to hit responding soldiers requires some degree of sophistication. Military intelligence attributes this brutal attack to an armed group affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf. But there is now growing belief the bomb maker that made this possible is an “import.”

The ISIS, through its Amaq News Agency, immediately claimed responsibility for the Jolo carnage. But this terrorist group has made so many false claims in the past that its most recent claim can only be taken with a grain of salt.

The claim, however, cannot be dismissed outright.

Amaq describes the attack as happening in the ISIS’ “East Asia Province.” In previous usage, the term has been used to describe the Islamic arc stretching from Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Southern Philippines.

Still obsessed with establishing a “caliphate” covering all Muslim countries, the ISIS has now focused its attention to this “province.” Having lost much ground in Iraq and Syria, this brutal terrorist group has been anxious to open a new front in Southeast Asia.

Western Mindanao appears to be the weakest link in the region’s anti-terrorist effort. Here, various armed groups proliferate. There are battle-scarred insurgents ready to embrace the ISIS flag in exchange for material and human support. There is a network of supply lines and jungle camps where radical factions, concealed within the folds of larger and older political movements available for the ISIS to build a sustainable base.

The more ISIS forces are battered in the Middle East, the more they will aspire to open new battlegrounds. Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are the leading candidates for building bases from which brutal terrorist activity could be mounted.

The ISIS may be dismissed as an ideological malignancy. But it remains a functioning terrorist force with enough determined fighters and significant financial resources.

Radical Islamic militants in Southeast Asia are hard-pressed for resources to continue their unseemly struggles. The promise of ISIS financial and technical support must be seen as heaven-sent.

The partial occupation of Marawi City is said to be a project inspired by ISIS agents operating in Southeast Asia. There were reports of foreign fighters joining the ultimately doomed effort.

Had the radical militants managed to hold on to Marawi City, the ISIS would no doubt have proclaimed this the seat of their “East Asia Province.” The fight to recover control of Marawi City, undertaken at great cost in lives and property, had a significant international dimension.

The capture of Marawi fits right into the ISIS puzzle. It is the only city in all of Southeast Asia vulnerable to occupation by a militant force. From there, the ISIS must have hoped to establish another Raqqa in this part of the world.

Jolo has been locked down by the PNP. The entire national police force has been put on heightened alert. These are the correct moves to undertake. Until the perpetrators of the attack on the cathedral, especially the person responsible for building the explosive used, are captured or killed, the entire nation will be thrown under the shadow of a terrorist threat.

Unlike previous incidents of kidnapping intended to raise funds by means of terror, the bombing signals a determined attempt to sow fear. Our security forces must respond to this threat more convincingly.

Remember the New Year’s Day attack on a department store in Cotabato City. The perpetrators of this attack roam free.

It is possible to link the Cotabato attack to the broader effort to intimidate voters in that city to support the Bangsamoro Organic Law. In the case of the Jolo bombing, there does not seem to be a domestic inspiration for the act of terror. This does seem to be inspired by the geopolitics of international terrorism.

Last week, the remnants of the Maute militants under the command of an Abu Dar saw their base overrun by the Army. Military hot pursuit operations are on-going in Lanao del Sur.

With the MILF now trying to establish its credibility as a group capable of governing the new Bangsamoro entity, some order might be established in the Mindanao mainland. Only in the islands of Basilan and Sulu may terrorist groups try to gain some momentum in building up their forces.

Expect some escalation in terrorist activity in the outlying islands. The stray militant groups here need to win the confidence of ISIS.

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