Deadly blasts, foggy info

  • One Man's Meat
  • Saturday, 02 Feb 2019

This handout photo released by Armed Forces of the Philippines taken on January 27, 2019, shows debris inside a Catholic Church where two bombs exploded in Jolo, Sulu province on the southern island of Mindanao. -AFP / Armed Forces of the Philippines, Western Mindanao Command

A FOG of war emerged after last week’s twin bombings during Sunday mass at a church in Jolo in the southern Philippines.

The phrase, as defined by Urban Dictionary, means “the unavoidable aspect of war wherein the intelligence gathered is always incomplete to a degree, thereby making any decisions concerning said war a bit ... foggy.”

Information, misinformation and disinformation have sprung up in the wake of the dastardly crime – as described by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – that killed more than 20 people.

I’ve been following the Jolo twin bombings closely as I have an interest in Jolo island, which is where hostages abducted from the east coast of Sabah are held.

I’m also familiar with the church.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral is in front of Helen’s Lodge, where I stayed when I covered the Sipadan hostage crisis.

On Easter in 2000, the Abu Sayyaf militant group seized 21 people, both foreigners and Malaysians, from Sipadan island in Sabah and held them in Jolo island.

I recall watching, from a room on the first floor of Helen Lodge, soldiers pursuing unknown assailants on the roof of the cathedral after an explosion.

According to early, raw information that I received from intelligence sources, the Jolo bombings involved (1) Hatib Hajan Sawad­jan, an Abu Sayyaf sub-­commander connected to cross-­border kidnappings in the east coast of Sabah, and (2) a husband-and-wife team who may be foreigners as well as suicide bombers.

I’ve double- and triple-checked the information with security and intelligence sources.

Some said the information was credible while others said it was unreliable.

Hours after the bombings, what came out from the Philippine authorities was that the Ajang Ajang group was responsible for the attack.

Philippines Interior Secretary Eduardo Año described Ajang Ajang as an urban terrorist group that runs errands and provides support to Abu Sayyaf.

Sources have told me that the members of Ajang Ajang are orphans of slain Moro National Liberal Front (MNLF) soldiers and that the teenagers executed local – not cross-border – kidnappings, committed extortion and pushed syabu in Jolo town.

Fingers were pointed at this group because CCTV footage showed an alleged brother of a slain Abu Sayyaf gunmen at the scene of the deadly explosions.

Col Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said the CCTV clip showed a man identified as Kamah tinkering with a phone that could have been used to detonate the bombs.

In the footage, “Kamah” behaved suspiciously and it looked like he and three others were connected to the bombings.

Authorities informed the media that they were looking for the four as they were persons of interest.

On Thursday, the persons of interest – accompanied by influential Jolo politicians – surrendered themselves to the authorities to clear their names.

A teenager, who resembles Kamah in the video, denied he was Kamah and said he was not involved in the bombings.

He said he was near the cathedral as he was buying medicine from a pharmacy.

The police have released all the persons of interest.

The Islamic State – through Amaq, its mouthpiece – has claimed responsibility.

It said two suicide bombers carried out the attack.

Some Philippine security agencies and terrorism experts believed that the claim was credible.

Some brushed it off as propa­ganda.

IS had claimed responsibility for a casino shooting incident in Manila on June 2017. It turned out that the lone gunman had gambling debts and was not motivated by IS.

There is also an element of spy-vs-spy in the investigation of the bomb attack.

Some security agencies are trying to pin the blame on another country.

Some of the raw information I received could be front-page material for the Malaysian media.

But after investigating, I’ve concluded that the information may be part of a spy-vs-spy game.

“Witnesses say so and so. But the allegation is weak and there is no proof,” a Malaysian intelligence officer told me.

Even the top Filipino security chiefs have differing theories.

ABS-CBN News reported that officials couldn’t seem to get their stories on the Jolo twin blasts in sync.

It said, “President Duterte said suicide bombers carried out the Jolo twin bombings. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said otherwise. AFP public affairs chief Col Noel Detoyato said a woman left a bag with a bomb inside the church. Philippines National Police spokesperson Sr Supt Bernard Banac also said the incident wasn’t suicide bombings.”

“Why can’t the officials get their stories on Jolo bombings in sync?” I asked Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

“That reflects the challenges of inter-agency coordination in countering terrorism in the Philippines,” said Banlaoi.

What Duterte said was interesting.

On Tuesday during a press conference, he said a wife-and-husband team of suicide bombers were responsible.

He also said the suicide bombers might be foreigners.

“They say that they (the bombers) were Indonesian. Others say – from the looks of it, you can’t see anything, no part of the body. Because of the explosion,” he said.

Philippine intelligence agencies have their hands full filtering the fog of information, misinformation and disinformation to uncover the truth behind the bombings.

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , One Man's Meat


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