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Philippines church bombing town on lockdown as ISIS threat reemerges

At least 17 dead in Philippines church bombings 00:33
At least 17 dead in Philippines church bombings 00:33
(CNN)The southern Philippines city of Jolo is on lockdown
after a deadly double bombing Sunday, as the authorities try to ensure
security and investigate the attack that killed at least 20.
The bombing -- which was claimed by ISIS
-- has raised fears of an increase in separatist violence in the
country's restive Mindanao region, following a referendum last week in
which an overwhelming majority of voters backed self-rule .
Bombs
exploded at the Jolo Catholic Cathedral during Sunday mass, officials
said, killing 20 and injuring at least 81 people, including 14 soldiers
and two police officers.
The
first device went off inside the cathedral and the second targeted
nearby soldiers who rushed to help the victims of the first explosion, a
military spokesman said.
Policemen and soldiers are seen in front of the Catholic Church where the bombing took place.
ISIS presence reaffirmed?
Mindanao,
an island chain in the far south of the Philippines at the borders of
Malaysia and Indonesia, has long been plagued by terrorism and unrest.
It
is home to several Islamist insurgent groups, including Abu Sayyaf,
which has been blamed for a number of attacks on civilians and
Philippine government troops, as well as the kidnapping of several
foreign nationals.
Supporters of
last week's referendum, which will see greater autonomy granted to
Muslim-dominated parts of Mindanao, hope it can bring a peaceful
resolution to the protracted conflict, which has claimed more than
120,000 lives since the 1970s.
Soldiers and police cordon off the area after two bombs exploded outside the church.
But
while Islamist and criminal groups have been active in the lawless
tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for
years, the rise of ISIS-affiliated groups has led to a sharp escalation
in violence.
In 2017,
ISIS-affiliated militants laid siege to the city of Marawi in Mindanao
for five months. The ensuing violence forced more than 350,000 residents
to flee the city and the surrounding areas, as their homes were reduced
to rubble by government airstrikes.
In
the 150 days of the Philippine army operation to flush the militants
out, more than 800 militants and 162 members of the government security
forces were killed.
Analysts say
Sunday's cathedral bombing attack had all the hallmarks of ISIS, which
has been all but displaced from its former strongholds in Iraq and
Syria, and shows that the group is still influential in the Mindanao
region.
Speaking to CNN, Sidney
Jones, director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of
Conflict, said ISIS is "still active" in the region but has changed
tactics since its 2017 occupation of Marawi.
"The
concern from the Marawi siege onwards had been that once Marawi ended,
ISIS components would use violence in other places," she said. "We've
had incidents in Lanao del Sur, Basilan -- the Lamitan bombing --
Cotabato and others since then."
Jones
said the bombing shows the willingness of Islamist extremist elements
in the region, many of which have pledged allegiance to ISIS, to mount
attacks even though ISIS in the Middle East has suffered multiple
defeats.
"I think it's a reminder that the establishment of the (autonomous region) does not eliminate extremism," Jones said.
"These
guys march to a different drummer, they're not motivated by the
establishment of the (autonomous region), they do not see an ethnic
Maguindanaon-led political entity as the goal they have been striving
for," she said, referring to the ethnic group which stands to gain
autonomy under the proposed devolution of powers.
Local,
national and international figures have condemned the attack, including
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a key stakeholder in the
peace process.
Leaders of the
MILF, a longtime separatist movement which has embraced dialogue with
the government, condemned the bombing and said they would help bring the
perpetrators to justice.
Mohagher
Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel, said his organization "is ready
to support efforts in the apprehension of the perpetrators of the
senseless violence that occurred in a place of worship while people were
attending the morning mass," according to Philippine state media PNA.
A
policeman carries a ballot box at a voting precinct in Cotabato on the
southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 21, 2019, during a
vote on giving the nation's Muslim minority greater control over the
region.
Threat level upped 'nationwide'
Fears
are now rising that the bombing may trigger deadly attacks in other
cities across the region. On Monday, Philippine National Police were
placed on "nationwide high alert" following the recent bout of violence.
"It could show that other areas
can also implement their own bombing attacks. Other groups could mount
bombings in Cotabato, Davao, (and) other major cities in Mindanao," said
Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace,
Violence and Terrorism Research.
The attack demonstrates that "terrorist threats in Mindanao continue to be real," he added.
Almost
two years after the Marawi siege brought the issue of Islamic extremism
to the fore, parts of Mindanao remain under martial law, which is not
due to expire until the end of this year.
The fact that a major attack could be mounted during martial law was a "major blow" to the government's policy, Banlaoi said.
"This
mass casualty bombing occurred despite martial law and during a high
security environment (in place for the plebiscite)," he said. "Let's see
if it will mean an extension of martial law."

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