MANILA, Philippines — An Abu Sayyaf militant leader accused of plotting a recent suicide attack in a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines may be harboring a foreign would-be suicide bomber in his jungle base, a senior official said Thursday.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who allegedly plotted the Jan. 27 attack at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral on Jolo island that killed 23 people, was also behind a suicide attack last year that killed 11 people in nearby Basilan province. Sawadjaan’s goal was to assert his new role as Islamic State group leader in the southern Philippines, Ano said.
The Jolo attack, allegedly carried out by two Indonesian suicide bombers, has renewed terrorism fears across the Philippines. The national police have been placed on full alert and security has been strengthened in churches, shopping malls and other public areas. President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to destroy the Abu Sayyaf, leading to a renewed military offensive in the south that has included sporadic air strikes and gunbattles.
Ano said in an interview that government forces have received intelligence about the presence of an Arabic man in Sawadjaan’s camp in the jungles of Sulu province’s Patikul town, and are taking steps to capture him along with Sawadjaan and his men.
“We’re watching this man because he’s also a trained bomber and a (would-be) suicide bomber,” Ano said. He said the militant could be a Yemeni or an Egyptian national and has married a local villager.
Ano, a former military chief of staff who as interior secretary supervises the national police, provided more details about Sawadjaan, a low-key Muslim insurgent in his 60s who he said was recognized last year by the Islamic State group as its lead representative in the country’s south, although IS also regards three other local militant factions as allies.
“The bombing of the cathedral and the bombing of Basilan were Sawadjaan’s moves to assert leadership,” Ano said. Police have said the Abu Sayyaf staged the cathedral bombing to gain attention and possible funding from the Islamic State group.
In the July 31 Basilan attack, a militant believed to be of Moroccan descent was killed when drums of explosives exploded in a van he was driving. Ten Filipino militiamen and villagers were also killed in the powerful blast, which wounded 11 others.
Police said the foreign militant had targeted a gathering of about 2,000 mostly students and teachers in Basilan’s Lamitan city but his vehicle stalled and villagers whom he asked for help became suspicious when they saw wires protruding from plastic gallon containers in the vehicle. The vehicle exploded as troops approached.
Ano said the militant, who used the nom de guerre Abu Kathir Al-Maghrib, had stayed in Sawadjaan’s camp in Jolo before he traveled to Basilan. Both the Basilan and Jolo attacks were delayed because of funding problems, he said.
“That Moroccan lived in the camp of Sawadjaan. He was seen by hostages,” Ano said.
An Indonesian militant who allegedly carried out the cathedral attack stayed in Sawadjaan’s stronghold for a while and arranged for his wife to travel to Jolo to help carry out the bombing, Ano said. The Jolo and Basilan bombs were made of similar explosives and most likely were assembled by a foreign militant, he said.
The Philippines will ask the help of Indonesian authorities in identifying the two suicide attackers through their remains, he said.
Early this week, national police Director-General Oscar Albayalde said five suspected Abu Sayyaf militants who escorted the Indonesian couple around Jolo ahead of the bombing have been taken into custody and charged with murder and attempted murder.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 to 400 armed fighters, has been blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. Sawadjaan is a Muslim preacher who has been linked to ransom kidnappings and the beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men in 2016, before the cathedral bombing.