The Philippine government’s premature declaration that Indonesians were the perpetrators of the Jolo cathedral bombing has set back the prospects for regional cooperation on terrorism and reinforced a perception among Indonesian counterparts of the Philippines as an unreliable and unprofessional partner.
As the last ISIS strongholds in the Middle East are falling, the call of ISIS leaders to their supporters to wage war at home takes on a new significance for Southeast Asia, underscoring the need for cross-border cooperation.
The eagerness of senior Philippine politicians to declare the case closed does a disservice to all the younger, well-trained law enforcement and intelligence officers in Manila and Mindanao who are determined to find out who the perpetrators actually were and uncover the sequence of events that led to the attack.
Indonesians may well have been involved, and if they were, the need for proactive information sharing is critical. As the last ISIS strongholds in the Middle East are falling, the call of ISIS leaders to their supporters to wage war at home takes on a new significance for Southeast Asia, underscoring the need for cross-border cooperation. The urgent task now is for donors to use every opportunity to bring Indonesian and Philippine officials together from all agencies at all levels to counteract the distrust caused by irresponsible political statements.
Hard facts remain scarce. On Sunday morning, 27 January, an explosion took place inside the cathedral, followed seconds later by another bombing outside the church as soldiers on duty rushed to the scene. On 29 January, President Rodrigo Duterte spoke to reporters and said he learned from intelligence sources that the bombers were a husband-wife team, and while reports were conflicting, they seemed to be Indonesian. On 1 February, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año identified the suicide bombers as Indonesians, though he did say the information had to be verified. In a press conference on 4 February, Philippine National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde announced the “surrender” of five suspects, all Abu Sayyaf members; gave the death toll as 23, one more than most previous accounts; and referred to an Indonesian woman as one of the suicide bombers. Many remain sceptical of the circumstances surrounding the “surrender”.
There is no hard evidence to identify the bombers: no immigration or travel documents; no fingers to take prints from; no skulls to reconstruct possible facial images; no identification that would make DNA matches possible. To this day, it remains unclear whether the bombs were detonated by the couple themselves or by someone else near the site.
The information that the couple was Indonesian rests on the testimony of witnesses. One who heard them speaking Indonesian and who himself had lived in Indonesia for six months so knew the language, another who had spent several months in the same camp as the male foreigner and testified he was Asian but did not know his nationality. The camp, led by ASG leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, is believed to be hosting a handful of other foreigners, including an Egyptian and two or three minors.
Indonesians were outraged that senior officials would jump to conclusions about the bombers’ nationality based on such skimpy evidence. Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, sent a team to Jolo to see what additional information they could glean, only to find the crime scene a shambles. Families retrieving the dead and wounded, top officials visiting the site with media in tow, dogs eating human remains, all of this meant that key evidence was lost. The Indonesian ambassador in Manila sent a formal request for clarification to the Philippines foreign secretary while Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi stressed that there was no concrete proof that Indonesians were involved.
The casualty is the trust that is vital to cooperation on counter-terrorism issues. Some Philippine officials believe that Indonesia is deliberately sending its terrorists to the Philippines to ensure they don’t do damage at home. Some top Indonesian officials see Philippines as incapable of conducting serious investigations, so why share sensitive information that will get misused?
The Jolo bombing has widened the gulf, at a time when there is more of a need than ever to understand the linkages between extremist movements in the two countries. Donors can help. Now is the time to take whatever budgets governments have for exchanges and bring Indonesians and Filipinos together in the same programs: law enforcement, immigration, prison administration and intelligence, to ensure that even if the politicians make a mess of things, the personal ties established can go some way to make up for it.