Sixteen people have been killed in a spate of bombings in Mindanao in the past two weeks. The cost in human lives is alarming enough, but the attacks could be the harbinger of a bigger threat that Philippine security officials must confront squarely.
The Manila Times has come across information that implicates a rogue group of Muslim militants in the deadly blasts in Cagayan de Oro and Cotabao cities. It appears that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has been recruiting trainees to make bombs and to carry out “test missions” to apply what they have learned.
The group’s chieftain, Ameril Umbrakato, is said to get his orders directly from the Jemaah Islamiyah, long known to be al-Qaeda’s affiliate and operating arm in the Southeast Asian region. Jemaah Islamiyah established a strong presence in the Southern Philippines in the years following 9/11, linking up with local Muslim extremists and providing them with financial and tactical support. It took a while, but the Armed Forces, with help from the US military, managed to smother Jemaah’s activities and arrest or kill a number of its leaders who were chased out of Indonesia and Malaysia and who sought refuge in Mindanao.
Now Jemaah Islamiyah seems to have been resuscitated and is once again stirring up things in the South. A young man who said he was trained by the group told The Times he and fellow recruits were told to prepare for jihad or holy war. The targets are not confined to Mindanao, the man said. A group of trainees are in fact in Metro Manila for test missions.
The recent bombings in Mindanao have authorities on their toes, and they are quick to cast their intelligence net far and wide. In the past, the military and the police were blamed for not digging enough reliable intelligence information to thwart terrorist attacks in the metropolis.
But Jemaah Islamiyah could have a bigger agenda in mind. In an unprecedented move last week, the United States shut down practically all of its embassies and missions in the Middle East following threats of an imminent al-Qaeda coordinated attack. Washington also warned that American citizens and interests could be at risk as well.
It is naïve to think that al-Qaeda does not have the Philippines in its crosshairs, when it has the Jemaah Islamiyah to do its bidding here. The network that is the brainchild of Osama bin Laden is eager to prove that it can still operate on a global scale, after it was written off by the US as a spent force.
The security officials must not let their guard down. The bombings in Mindanao could just be the start of a bigger offensive. Or they could be feint to mask the real target, which is Metro Manila.