ISIL: Cathedral Attack in the Sulu Province

Source: Reuters 2019

Abu Sayyaf attacked the Catholic Church, Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, during mass on January 27th in the Sulu Province of the Southern Philippines. The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) claims the two back-to-back bombings were the work of suicide bombers, which was later confirmed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano.

At least 20 people were killed in the attack and more than 100 individuals were injured. In response to this attack, the Filipino Government is on high alert and is conducting military operations to “destroy” Abu Sayyaf. President Duterte also declared martial law until the criminals are found.

Abu Sayyaf is a branch of the ISIL that has been active in the Philippines since 1991. The group is known for bombing a ferry in 2004, killing 116 people, as well as various kidnappings for ransom. The attack in Jolo is one of their largest to date, with 131 total casualties, as calculated by our Active Intelligence Database.

A week prior to the bombing, a referendum was conducted on the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would allow for expanded autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. While experts don’t believe the two events are related, it’s possible that the attack was meant to further divide the Muslim and Christian communities in the province.

The Philippine government has taken proper steps to reassure the community through security personnel outside places of worship and patrols through large public areas. President Duterte responded with strong and ruthless commentary on the church bombing by declaring the military to take care of the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf by any means necessary.

The military adamantly agreed with Duterte and staged multiple manhunts to find Abu Sayyaf members behind the attack. The Army suffered a few fatalities in the altercations with Abu Sayyaf militants before making a major arrest.

On February 4th, five Abu Sayyaf members believed to have orchestrated the attack surrendered to the Philippine Army. This arrest, coupled with strong words from the President, undoubtedly relieved the fears of citizens in Jolo and throughout the Philippines.

At least 14 main suspects are still at large; however, the Philippine government needs to recognize that these main suspects are only one part of a larger terrorist organization. Abu Sayyaf has at least 400 members and the main suspects that the Army has in custody represent a small subset of the overall group.

The Philippine Government should gather the information they can from the members that surrendered in order to take down Abu Sayyaf. While the attack doesn’t seem related to the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the government needs to keep the referendum in mind as it symbolizes movement towards peace for many in the region.

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