on security

Jul 9, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

8 mins read

What a Recent Suicide Bombing May Mean for the Philippines

Police officers and soldiers stand outside a Catholic church in Jolo, Philippines, on Jan. 27, 2019, the day after two suicide bombings killed 20 people.
  • Suicide bombings have been relatively rare in the Philippines, and Philippine authorities have blamed those that have occurred recently on foreign militants.
  • The involvement of a Filipino in a June 28 suicide bombing may indicate that local sentiment about suicide bombings is changing and the tactic may be more readily embraced.
  • Such a shift will carry implications for the security situation in the southern Philippines, and businesses and organizations operating there must be prepared.

Two suicide bombers struck near the front gate of a Philippine military base in Indanan on the island of Jolo in Sulu province on June 28. The bombers appear to have timed their attack to coincide with a change-of-command ceremony for the incoming First Brigade Combat Team, which had been deployed to the base to pacify jihadists belonging to a Sulu-based Abu Sayyaf faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Reports indicate that a group of soldiers had approached a man they considered suspicious near the base's entrance when he detonated a bomb he was carrying, killing three soldiers and two bystanders. In the chaos that followed, a second bomber tried to slip inside the gate. Soldiers confronted and shot him, but he still was able to set off his bomb. The explosion injured several soldiers. Photos and videos of the scene show that the guard booth at the gate sustained damage consistent with shrapnel that had been added to the bombs to increase their lethality.

The Big Picture

Jihadists in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are fighting a long war effort that involves a range of military tactics, from conventional military operations to insurgency to terrorism. Many jihadist franchise groups use suicide bombers as an effective force multiplier. Suicide attacks not only create carnage, insecurity and division, but they also send a potent message about the jihadists' determination and perseverance.

The Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the attack. While the group's claim that the bombings had killed some 100 Philippine soldiers was widely exaggerated, video footage of the two bombers shot before the operation leaves little doubt that the Abu Sayyaf faction recognized as the Islamic State's regional franchise in East Asia was responsible.

Online news outlet Rappler reported July 2 that Philippine authorities are working to confirm the identities of the two bombers through DNA testing and that they are working on the theory that one of the bombers was a Moroccan and the other was Filipino. A local woman came forward to claim the body of one of the bombers for burial, saying it was her 23-year-old son. Authorities believe the second bomber was the son of the Moroccan man involved in a July 2018 suicide attack on the nearby island of Basilan.

Muslim militants in the southern Philippines have previously used bombs in their decadeslong war against the government in Manila, but suicide bombings have been relatively rare, and Philippine authorities have blamed foreign militants for those that have occurred in the past year. The involvement of a Filipino bomber in this latest incident could have significant implications for security in the region.

Cultural Considerations

Jihadists have never universally agreed on suicide bombing as a religiously acceptable method of warfare, though some ideologues and groups have embraced and promoted the practice more readily than others. In addition to the religious justification, cultural factors also are involved in the willingness to employ suicide bombers, with jihadists in some places embracing the tactic more readily than others. For example, jihadists in Afghanistan have generally been known to be fierce fighters, but for many years they considered suicide bombing to be less "manly" than dying in armed combat. Until 2006, foreign militants conducted most of the suicide bombings in Afghanistan. But once the Taliban leadership and the rank and file embraced suicide attacks as an acceptable tactic in their warrior ethos, they increased dramatically. Today both the Taliban and their rivals in the Islamic State Khorasan group practice suicide bombing with deadly effectiveness.

Jihadists in Indonesia have practiced suicide bombing for many years and have claimed several high-profile attacks, including the 2003 JW Marriott bombing, the 2005 Bali restaurant bombings and the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings. More recently, Indonesia experienced a wave of suicide attacks in May 2018.

A map showing the location of suicide bombings in the Philippines since 2000.

There is a lot of interconnection between jihadists in Southeast Asia. Muslim militants in the region traditionally have been excellent sailors and have been able to freely traverse the archipelago that stretches from the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia. This mobility gives militants in Indonesia the opportunity to receive training in the Philippines and seek refuge there. In fact, many high-profile Indonesian jihadist bombmakers have spent time in the Philippines. However, despite this interconnectedness and the long-running Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines, suicide attacks have been rare in the Philippines. Before the Basilan attack in July 2018, the last suicide attack in the Philippines took place in August 2010 when a suicide bomber attempted to assassinate the governor of Sulu province at the airport in Zamboanga City. The attack killed one person in addition to the bomber and injured 23, including the governor.

There has been a spike in the number of suicide bombings in the Philippines over the past year, similar to the increase seen in 2002 and 2003. Most of the suspects in these recent bombings have been foreign jihadists. For example, a Moroccan operative conducted the July 31, 2018, van bombing that killed 11 people near Lamitan City on Basilan island and an Indonesian couple carried out the January 2019 double-tap suicide bombing of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the city of Jolo. Cultural reasons likely explain the lack of Philippine suicide bombers; however, the emergence of a Philippine bomber in the June 28 attack raises the possibility that a cultural shift similar to one in Afghanistan in 2006 may be taking place. This shift in the Philippines may be due to anger and frustration in the wake of the 2017 Marawi siege, but whatever the root cause, it does appear to reflect the increasing influence that the Islamic State's ideology is having on jihadists inside the Philippines. Such a shift can also bring some serious implications.

The Fallout for the Philippines

The Islamic State's Southeast Asia franchise expended a considerable amount of personnel and resources in their failed bid to establish an Islamic emirate in Mindanao, in which they seized the city of Marawi and emerged quite a bit weaker from that battle. However, they nevertheless retain the capability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks, which require far fewer resources than guerrilla warfare operations. Suicide bombers can serve as a significant force multiplier to an organization waging terrorist operations.

The emergence of a Philippine suicide bomber raises the possibility that a cultural shift could be taking place.

Suicide bombers have a number of tactical advantages over operations involving bombs that are planted and detonated by either a timer or remote control. First, the devices themselves are quite rudimentary and are not difficult for even a novice bombmaker to construct. All that is required is a main explosive charge, a detonator, a power source and a switch. Judging by recent photos of arms caches in the southern Philippines, the jihadists there appear to have no shortage of explosives or detonators, so acquiring the material for constructing suicide bombs will not be difficult if they are able to recruit and indoctrinate bombers.

Second, by using a person as a delivery and detonation system, terrorist planners create a type of human "smart bomb." Suicide bombers can avoid obstacles, adapt the operation to problems on the fly and, importantly, detonate at just the right time to cause maximum casualties.

Suicide bombings against military personnel will likely increase as the Philippine military ramps up its operations in the Sulu region to pursue Abu Sayyaf militants. As demonstrated by the Solo City church bombing in January, however, these militants are also willing to hit soft, civilian targets — especially when they believe an attack may help to intensify sectarian tensions that could be to their advantage. The January attack coincided with the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which began a process of granting more autonomy to the predominantly Muslim areas of the southern Philippines where Islamic State sympathizers thrive. The political process dealt a blow to the argument of jihadist hard-liners that violence is the only way to self-rule, and the jihadists are working hard to aggravate sectarian fault lines in an effort to undermine the Bangasamoro Organic Law. This is similar to tactics Islamic State-linked jihadists have adopted in places such as Afghanistan, North Africa, the Levant and Egypt.

Because of this, if suicide bombings become more widely embraced by Philippine jihadists, we likely will see more attacks against soft targets, not only on islands like Jolo and Basilan, but perhaps also even in population centers on Mindanao as the jihadists attempt to sow chaos and discord. In addition to conducting attacks against religious targets, an increase in attacks against businesses and organizations that are seen as supporting the Philippine government in the region could be expected. It will be important to watch for indications of a further embrace of suicide bombings by Philippine militants, and businesses and organizations operating in the southern Philippines should examine their security posture to ensure they are prepared for a potential spike in suicide bombings.

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