December 30 – the day commemorating the martyrdom of Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, was celebrated as usual in 2000: the Philippine flag was hoisted in the national flag pole, a wreath was offered in front of Rizal’s iconic monument in a public park named after him. But the solemnity of an otherwise perfunctory holiday was dashed by a terror attack. Five simultaneous bomb explosions terrorized Manila: a bus in Cubao, Quezon City; the cargo area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport; a gas station in Makati City; Plaza Ferguzon in Malate; and a train carriage of Metro Manila’s LRT Line 1. Twenty two people died, around a hundred were injured.
The main suspect behind the “Rizal Day Bombings“ was Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi. Al-Ghozi planned and coordinated the terror attacks. He was a key bomb-making trainer of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a militant organization born in Indonesia. After being trained in Afghanistan in 1993 and 1994, JI sent Al-Ghozi in a mission to the Philippines when “JI relocated its training facilities to Mindanao in the southern Philippines” in 1996. For several years, Al-Ghozi provided training in terror tactics and explosives within the camp of the Moro National Liberation Front.
Mindanao is a crucial node in JI’s goal of establishing an Islamic State in Southeast Asia, which encompasses Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the southern Philippines. “A primary training ground” of JI, Southern Philippines is where JI’s IED designs and techniques are taught and tested. Because of this, the bombs used by Islamic extremist groups in the Philippines changed from simple hand and rocket-propelled grenade into JI’s signature IEDs: more potent mixture of chemicals and “the use of electronics, including Indonesian-designed integrated circuit boards, and cellphones that allow more efficiency and flexibility as trigger.”
The homogeneity of IED techniques was emphasized by Albert Ignatius D. Ferro, former chief of the Philippine Bomb Data Center (PBDC) in his interview with National Defense in 2007: “[T]here are strong indications that Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah and other terrorist groups are really collaborating to have a common type of IED.” This IED technique was also used by the Raja Sulaiman Movement, an Islamic extremist group affiliated with the infamous Abu Sayyaf Group, when it sank commercial liner Superferry 14 in 2004 with a bomb triggered by a timing device. One hundred sixteen people died, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in the Philippines.
In October 2013, three months after he escaped from jail, al-Ghozi was killed by soldiers guarding a checkpoint in Mindanao. He died but the terror technology he taught lives on.
“300 bomb makers”
Besides al-Ghozi, another expert bomb maker that has left a terror legacy in the Philippines is Zulkifli Abdhir, more popularly known as “Marwan.” According to FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, Marwan, a Malaysian citizen, is considered the leader of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) terrorist organization, a member of the JI’s central command. He later on co-founded Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM), a terror group based in Southern Philippines, suspected of sending young idealistic Muslim fighters to join ISIS.
Marwan was Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists by the United States, which offered $5 million reward for his capture. In January 2015, he was killed by the Special Action Force (SAF) unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP), in a mission that led to death of 44 members of this elite unit. Marwan’s death was later on confirmed by a DNA test conducted by the FBI.
However, just like al-Ghozi, Marwan’s death is only the tip of the IED legacy of foreign terrorists in the Philippines. The bomb instructor is dead, but he spawned hundreds of bomb makers when he was still alive. Over the past two years, Marwan was able to train “some 300 bomb makers” in Central Mindanao. This might be the reason why, as Table 1 shows, most of the IED incidents in the Philippines from 2010-2014 happened in Philippine Regions 9-13 and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which are all located in the areas where Marwan operated. These regions served as IED training and testing grounds for future bomb makers.
Countering the threat – Philippine Bomb Data Center
How to mitigate and eventually eradicate this terror legacy is the IED challenge the Philippines face in the coming years. To meet this challenge, the Philippines has to improve its capability to prevent and respond to IED incidents. Table 2 reflects this pressing need to improve capabilities.
According to the data gathered by the Philippine Bomb Data Center (PBDC) from 2010-2014, there remains quite a significant gap between consummated bombings and those that had been thwarted by the government. The “recovery” line refers to the latter. During our interview, Carmelo Siapno, an analyst from PBDC, explained that “recovery” is a term they use to refer to incidents “wherein an IED was recovered by government forces. This includes attempted IED bombings, IED which failed to explode, overran caches of IED and components, and other similar cases.”
To improve the current ability of the Philippines to prevent and respond to IED incidents, the government has to address, what Mr Siapno identified as “shortage of necessary equipment in IED response.” He provided a list of equipment that the Philippines need to procure to beef up its counter-IED operations: “bomb x-ray, EOD robots, signal jammers and latest bomb suits.” Furthermore, Mr Siapno said that the PNP needs “further skill and equipment enhancement in the field of forensics in investigating explosive related incidents (ERIs).”
Recent cuts in the budget of the PNP may hinder the needed capability improvement to counter the IED legacy of foreign terrorists in the Philippines. Last year, Congress questioned the proposed 2015 budget of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), in which the PNP is allocated only “P70.76 billion (1.622 billion USD), lower than its 2014 budget of P72.1 billion.”
Nonetheless, the PNP still includes counter-IED capabilities in its 2015 Procurement Plan. This year, it allotted P22.5 million (around 55,900 USD) for 45 explosive detection dogs to be used by PNP’s Aviation Security Group, the agency responsible for securing airports in the Philippines against terrorist attacks. This suggests that the priority, for now, is to protect critical infrastructures against IED threats. This is a good start, but more resources are needed in order to respond and eradicate effectively the terror legacy left behind by al-Ghozi and Marwan. In fact, local government units in oft-bombed regions in the Philippines are already “bracing for possible retaliations by followers of Marwan.” Certainly, they need more resources and enhanced ERI-response skills to counter this threat. And this demands beefing up the counter-IED capability of the Philippines by addressing the shortage in necessary equipment in IED response that Mr Siapno of PBDC has identified.