September 1 marked the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. But on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, wracked for the past month by bloody fighting between Muslim separatists and government troops, what should have been a peaceful day instead brought a new horror. That afternoon, a bomb exploded aboard a packed passenger bus in Digos City, killing six and wounding at least 34. According to a witness report, the powerful blast nearly tore off the roof of the bus, decapitating one passenger.
Philippines police connect the bombing to al-Khobar, a shadowy extortion gang that has carried out numerous attacks against public buses in southern Mindanao in recent years. Police Chief Inspector Querubin L. Manalang Jr. said the group called the bus company late last week threatening new attacks if their demands for payment weren't met. He said nails and other debris recovered from the site resemble bomb material used in a July attack that killed one bus passenger and wounded 35. "It was the signature bomb of the al-Kohbar group," Manalang said.
Manalang says there is no evidence of a connection between Monday's attack and last month's separatist fighting in the island's north, which left dozens of civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Mindanao, long home to a simmering insurgency, exploded into violence in August after the country's Supreme Court halted an agreement between government negotiators and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that would have set boundaries for a semi-autonomous Muslim homeland. In apparent frustration with the stalled negotiations, two rogue MILF commanders have been accused of leading their fighters on a murderous rampage in two nearby provinces.
According to Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based terrorism expert with the International Crisis Group, the breakdown of negotiations may have freed the most radicalized faction of a fluid coalition of homegrown separatists, criminals, and foreign jihadis trained by Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-linked international terrorist group. "The MILF was keeping a fairly tight lid on the radical elements," Jones says. "When things were looking bright for a peace agreement, they were even providing intelligence on foreign jihadis to the armed forces of the Philippines." Such cooperation is unlikely to continue, Jones says.
In a statement earlier this year, the MILF disavowed connection with al-Khobar. But an al-Khobar member arrested in February reportedly told police that, although the gang was not officially connected to the MILF, it was run by a rogue MILF commander operating in Maguindanao, a province controlled by the MILF. The arrested man told police that, as they suspected, the group had carried out numerous bombings in southern Mindanao to extort money. Jones says some of that money may be funding MILF fighters. Al-Khobar's "extortion is criminality on one level, but it also seems to be done in the interest of raising funds for more operations. So it's not necessarily completely divorced from the MILF."
Others say the group may be connected to another insurgency that has been brewing in the Philippines for decades. Arabinda Acharya, a Philippines expert with the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, says al-Khobar may actually be affiliated with the New People's Army, Communist insurgents who have fought a long-running guerrilla campaign against the government parallel to the MILF's. By staging attacks in Mindanao, Acharya says, the NPA may be trying to force the government to fight a two-front insurgency. "This particular group is the criminal arm of the NPA," Acharya speculates. "They want to distract from operations against the MILF."
If Mindanao continues to spiral towards all-out war, Acharya says, terrorist attacks by more splinter factions are likely to increase, since the rogue MILF commanders directing the violence are also those closest linked to foreign jihadis and Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-financed terrorist group that has carried out dozens of kidnappings and large-scale terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a Manila ferry that killed 116. Worsening chaos in Mindanao could embolden the most violent and radical elements in this protean coalition to export their jihad beyond the troubled island. "I will not be surprised by that if the MILF renews their attacks," Acharya says. "That will be what Jemaah Islamiyah wants for the Philippines."