Manila Bomb: Terror or Vendetta?

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Police inspect the damage after a powerful explosion in the south wing of the Philippine lower house of Congress in Quezon City, suburban Manila, November 13, 2007

On Tuesday evening, a suspected nail bomb blast ripped through the south entrance of the Philippines' House of Representatives, killing a congressman and two others. But by Wednesday morning, it was back to business as usual: debating the latest attempt to impeach embattled President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"This was a massive shock to us all," Noli Fuentabella, deputy speaker of the House, says. "But we will never be deflected from our duties as law-abiding citizens and elected representatives of our people."

At least 11 people, including two legislators, were wounded in the blast, which occurred as congressmen and -women left the building following Tuesday's session. Police investigators have recovered a mobile phone they believe was used to trigger the device, said to have been packed with nails and strapped to a motorcycle. Investigators said at a police press conference that the trigger is similar to those used before by Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic extremist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Representative Wahab Akbar, one of the bomb's victims, is believed to have been the target of the attack — making it an apparent assassination rather than a wider attack on the Philippines political establishment. Akbar, whose body was flown home for burial Wednesday, was a prominent figure in the Philippines' restive Basilan province, the stamping ground for Abu Sayyaf as well as Muslim separatist groups like the MILF and MNLF. He was elected governor of the province twice before becoming congressman in May; one of his three wives has succeeded him as governor, while another is mayor of its capital, Isabela City. The third wife ran, and lost, the race to be mayor of another city. Akbar was widely rumored to have strong ties with Abu Sayyaf, with some reports even claiming he was a founding member and a commander until he had a falling-out with the group.

But despite the connections drawn between Akbar and Abu Sayyaf, political violence is nothing new in the Philippines, and the true motives behind the blast may never be known. Nearly 140 people are believed to have been killed in congressional elections in May, and a senior election official was recently shot dead in Manila. "We're used to this here. It has always been part of our electoral and political situation," Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Electoral and Political Reform, told TIME. "Politicians get killed before, during and after elections." Still, "there is a bitter political fight going on down there in Basilan," Casiple acknowleges. "Throw the terrorism situation and Akbar's alleged links to Abu Sayaf, and then his public statements denouncing them. It all makes him an obvious target."

The bomb attack comes at an unsettled time for the Philippines. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose administration has been battered by scandals and allegations of electoral fraud, faces increasing calls to step down and fresh rumors of coup attempts against her. And a month before the House of Representatives attack, another explosion at a shopping mall in Manila's upmarket Makati district killed 11 people. While recent findings indicate the explosion was the result of a gas leak, initial reports blamed the blast on terrorism, and police have yet to announce the results of their full investigation. But regardless of the true cause of the Makati blast or the identity of the culprits behind the latest attack, "the political situation in the Philippines is in a state of flux," says Casiple. "And that is always very, very dangerous here."