How did the bomber/s get inside Jolo cathedral?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 27 January) – How did the bomber or bombers get inside the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu on Sunday morning when the church has always been heavily guarded especially during Sundays and with martial law in place since May 2017, security is expected to have been tighter?

The first bomb exploded not while parishioners were waiting for the mass to start, as earlier reports indicated, but during the second reading, Fr. Jeff Nadua, Jolo parish priest, told MindaNews. The bomb went off on the right side fronting the altar, at the back portion, he said, adding “some claim it came from the choir loft.”

The mass was officiated by Fr. Ricky Bacolcol, a Diocesan priest.

The second bomb, believed to have been placed in the utility box of a parked motorcycle, exploded outside the church, killing five soldiers.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu, 27 January 2019. Photo courtesy of AFP WEstern Mindanao Command

At least 20 persons were killed and 111 others injured according to the report of the Sulu Provincial Police Office to the Regional Police Office of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as of 6 p.m. The 6 p.m. report of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command, on the other hand, placed the number of dead at 18 and the number of wounded at 82.

Sunday’s twin bombing was the deadliest in the history of Catholic church bombings in Mindanao, happening as it did under martial law and just a month after President Rodrigo Duterte activated the 11th Infantry Division in Jolo, purportedly to end the terrorism of the Abu Sayyaf, principal suspects in the twin blasts.

Asked how the bombers managed to get inside the Cathedral when security was supposed to have been tight, Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), replied to MindaNews via SMS: “malalaman po sa investigation namin mga questions na yan” (we will find out answers to those questions during the investigation).

Besana said they were still awaiting the results of the post-blast investigation but “Abu Sayyaf Group is surely one of the possible perpetrators.”

At 9:25 p.m., Besana said the motive behind the bombing was “peace spoiler and vendetta for the death of ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) sub-leader last year.”

Initial findings based on CCTV footage, he said, show the group responsible is the Adjang-Adjang which he described as “Abu Sayyaf Group operating in the urban area like Jolo.”

Asked the same question on how the bomber/s got inside the Cathedral, Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, Armed Forces Chief of Staff told MindaNews: “I’m confident our troops were doing their best performing their jobs during that time, that’s why they were in the vicinity when it happened.”

“It will be unfair to our troops if we speculate until we know all the facts. Anti-terrorism is a very complex security operation,” Madrigal said.

According to Westmincom’s 6 p.m. report, five of the 18 killed were soldiers, one was a member of the Coast Guard and 12 were civilians while 15 of the 82 wounded were soldiers, two from the Coast Guard and 65 were civilians.

Martial law

President Rodrigo Duterte placed all of Mindanao’s 27 prvinces (including Sulu) and 33 cities under martial law on May 23, 2017, Day 1 of the Marawi Siege, supposedly only for 60 days. Martial law was extended to December 31, 2017, extended again to December 31, 2018 and extended for the third time, until December 31, 2019.

On December 17, 2018, five days after Congress granted Duterte’s request for a third extension, Duterte went to Jolo, Sulu, to activate a new division, the 11th Army Division, purportedly to put an end to the Abu Sayyaf’s terrorism.

The Abu Sayyaf under Isnilon Hapilon had joined forces with the Maute Group in 2017 and engaged government troops in a five-month war in Marawi City that led to his death and Omar Maute’s on October 16, 2017. President Duterte declared Marawi “liberated from the terrorist influence” a day after, on October 17.

Two priests have been killed just outside the Jolo cathedral in 1994 and 1997: Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, well-loved not only by Christians but also Muslims and the Badjaos in Jolo, on February 4, 1997, and Fr. Benjamin Inocencio, Chancellor of the Vicariate of Jolo, who was gunned down on Holy Innocents’ Day near where the Bishop was killed.

De Jesus and Inocencio belonged to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).

Fr. Roberto Layson, head of the OMI’s Inter-Religious Dialogue and parish priest of Jolo from 1994 to 1997, recalled to MindaNews on Sunday that soldiers had been securing the Cathedral even before Bishop de Jesus was killed.

Layson said there were two attempted attacks on the cathedral while he was parish priest there – a suspected improvised explosive device (IED) left at the sacristy and an attempt to burn the church.

Jolo’s Bishop Emeritus Angelito Lampon, OMI, and retired Cardinal Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, in a statement Sunday described the bombing as “the most heinous desecration of a sacred place, on a sacred day, and at a sacred moment of worship” and “truly a satanic act that all sacred religions must condemn.”

“This is the action of evil people with utter disregard for the sacredness of human life and of human dignity. We entrust the innocent victims to the Lord’s compassion and pray for their grieving families,” they said.

The two urged the security forces to “flush out the perpetrators of this barbaric crime and bring them to justice.”

“May the One God of all preserve us from evil and lead us to the way of peace,” the two said.

On January 21, Sulu Province rejected RA 11054 of the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region In Muslim Mindanao with 163,526 voting “no” and 137,630 voting “yes.”

But even as it voted no, Sulu will still be part of the BARMM because the law provides that the five-province, two-city autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) votes as “one geographical area.”

Sulu had earlier filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to declare RA 11054 unconstitutional as it questioned, among others, the provision that the votes in the component provinces and cities of ARMM – Maguindanao, Lanao Del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and the cities of Marawi and Lamitan – be treated as “one geographical area.”

The petition is still pending with the Supreme Court. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / Mindanews)