DILG: Authorities looking into couple allegedly involved in Jolo blast

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 29) — Authorities are looking into eyewitness accounts that a couple may have carried out the twin blasts in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Jolo, Sulu which killed at least 22, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said.

Año told CNN Philippines' The Source on Tuesday that they are verifying eyewitness accounts that point to a woman wearing a black jacket who supposedly carried a black bag and sat at the fourth row of pews from the cathedral's altar, where the first bomb - said to weigh two to three kilos – is thought to have exploded.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines confirmed in a media briefing that a woman planted a bomb inside the cathedral.

He said eyewitnesses have also pointed to a man, thought to be with the woman, who supposedly set off the second bomb at the entrance of the church. Sulu 1st District caretaker Jericho Nograles said the second explosion threw people three meters away from the blast.

"Supposedly, dapat wala namang magsisimba na mayroong black bag eh. Dapat hindi pinapayagan 'yan. Medyo nagkaroon ng konting lapses doon," Año said.

[Translation: Supposedly, no one should be attending Mass carrying a black bag. That should not have been allowed. There were some security lapses there.]

READ: NBI to investigate Jolo cathedral blasts

The Interior Secretary added that they have identified persons of interest in the twin blasts, who he said were captured on CCTV.

Security footage from the Armed Forces of the Philippines West Mindanao Command show four men running away from the blast site, with one man in a blue jacket handing over an item to another man with a red backpack before running back to area of the bombing.

READ: Brother of Abu Sayyaf leader identified as person of interest in Jolo blasts

"Itong apat na 'to kasi more or less may naka-identify na they are part of the [Abu Sayyaf Group] group. This is what we call the urban terrorist group," Año said.

[Translation: These four men have been more or less been identified as part of the Abu Sayyaf Group Ajang Ajang group. This is what we call the urban terrorist group.]

 

Año said the Abu Sayyaf use the Ajang Ajang group to run errands, provide support and relay communication.

He added that one of the men has been identified, but refused to reveal his identity as investigation and manhunt operations are ongoing.

Security lapses

Año also admitted that there may have been security lapses around the cathedral before the blasts occured.

"Somehow, there was (sic) some lapses. Probably naging complacent sila because tapos na 'yung [Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite,]" he said.

[Translation: Somehow, there were some lapses were some lapses.Probably they became complacent because the plebiscite for the BOL is over.]

The police and military beefed up security in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Cotabato City and Isabela City, Basilan which voted in a plebiscite for the ratification of the BOL, which creates the new Bangsamoro ARMM.

READ: The Bangsamoro Organic Law: Everything you need to know

Sulu voted against the BOL, but since they already form part of the ARMM, their votes were counted with the entire region. The provincial government is contesting that before the Supreme Court.

Año explained that three layers of security have been in place around the church, which Nograles said has been cordoned off to motorists five months ago, when the cathedral first received terror threats.

Also speaking to The Source, Nograles said the security around the area was loosened three to four months ago when the threats seemed to have dissipated.

The DILG chief said soldiers guard the perimeter of the church "24 hours a day," while joint forces of the military and the police man checkpoints leading to the church, and policemen are stationed in checkpoints at the outermost ring around the church.

"We have to thank the military for working so hard to secure Jolo. But of course there are lapses. There has to be lapses. How could somebody enter the church with a bomb?" Nograles said.

In another interview with The Source, Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Professor Rommel Banlaoi said the group behind the fatal bombing "outsmarted law enforcement authorities."

Martial law 'more' justified

The blast occurred just days after the ratification of the BOL and during the implementation of martial law in Mindanao, which has been in place since May 23, 2017.

Critics have come to say that martial law has been ineffective in preventing the attack.

However, Malacañang said the incident should serve as "more reason" for martial law's continued implementation.

 

"It's not perfect. Yes the whole of Mindanao is martial law and despite that, crimes do happen, terrorism (does) happen. It's not a perfect martial law," Nograles said, but added that it is more justified following the blast.

"If there wasn't martial law five months ago, making that security cordon was harder. And I would still reiterate, in particular, Sulu, martial law is still welcome by the people," he said.

The Supreme Court is holding oral arguments today on petitions against the continued implementation of martial law in Mindanao.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but security officials, while not discounting that possibility, say  local terror groups are likely behind the bombing.

The police and the military are now under nationwide heightened alert following the blast.