Deadly Philippine bombing exposes weakness in intel gathering: Military spokesman

Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
Cotabato and Iligan, Philippines
Deadly Philippine bombing exposes weakness in intel gathering: Military spokesman Philippine police and soldiers arrive at Mindanao State University in Marawi a day after a bomb killed four attending a Catholic Mass on the campus, Dec. 4, 2023.
Merlyn Manos/AFP

A deadly bombing of a Catholic Mass in southern Marawi city this week has exposed the Philippine military’s weakness in intelligence gathering, officials said Thursday, after identifying two Filipinos as main suspects in the attack claimed by Islamic State extremists. 

The bombing that killed four people who were attending the worship service on Sunday inside a gym at Mindanao State University was apparently meant as a response to the military’s sustained offensives against pro-Islamic State (IS) militants and allied groups, officials said. 

“We don’t have enough capability to know everything that’s going around us,” Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Col. Medel Agular said in a telephone interview with reporters on Thursday. 

“Because of the incident, there is a need for us to enhance our intelligence capability,” he said, adding that the military “cannot cover everything” in Mindanao, the Philippines’ southern region, where militants from various groups have fought government troops for decades.  

On Wednesday, the national police identified two IS-linked militants, Kadapi Mimbesa (also known Engineer) and Arsani Membisa (also known as Katab) as the alleged bombers. The announcement came days after the Philippine president blamed “foreign terrorists” for the attack but without releasing details. 

Caught on CCTV

The man identified as Engineer is believed to be the bomb expert and has existing arrest warrants for cases ranging from kidnapping to illegal possession of explosives, national police spokeswoman Col. Jean Fajardo told reporters. 

“When police reviewed the footage from the closed-circuit television outside the school, we sighted the two suspects at 6:27 a.m. and [they] were seen entering the gymnasium at about 7 a.m. All of those were seen in the enhanced footage,” Fajardo told reporters. 

After the two suspects left the gym, one of them pulled out his cell phone as if to make a call just before the explosion, Fajardo said. 

“They were identified by the witnesses through the rogues (gallery of) pictures shown to them by police probers, including their attire,” Fajardo said. 

Philippine military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner (seated, center), flanked by National Intelligence Coordinating Agency chief Ricardo de Leon and Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, meets with staff members at the 103rd Infantry Brigade in the city of Marawi, Dec. 4, 2023. [Armed Forces of the Philippines handout]

Marawi has been under close watch by the military and police for six years after fighters from pro-IS militant groups seized its central area in an attempt to make the lakeside city an Islamic State caliphate in Southeast Asia.

A five-month battle ensued during which at least 1,200 militants, government troops and civilians were killed before govenment forces retook the city. Hundreds of IS fighters from Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East had converged in Marawi in response to a call from the IS regional leader, Isnilon Hapilon, who would die in the fighting. 

Since then, the military has admitted there were several militant stragglers in the region, but played down their capability of carrying out an attack – while noting random bombings were possible.

On Thursday, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a former national police chief, said there appeared to be a “failure to appreciate intelligence or a failure to perform security preparations based on the intelligence. 

“Because even if you have the information, but you chose to ignore the intelligence report and not do any action, then for sure when the attack happens, you will be defenseless,” he told reporters. “You were not prepared.”

Aguilar, meanwhile, said the military’s responsibilities could be stretched thin.

“The failure maybe is not because of negligence on their part, but probably on the capability to cover everything by the military alone,” he said. 

Previously, Armed Forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. dismissed complaints about a failure in intelligence, noting that officers were aware of possible plans of terrorist attacks in retaliation for recent losses

Brawner was referring to military operations against Daulah Islamiyah-Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf leaders in Maguindanao del Sur, Basilan and Lanao del Sur, including one last week that killed 11 militants.

He said there was no specific information about a target but said the military informed security forces and local government units of the threat. 

The suspected bombers, Mimbesa and Membisa, are known operatives of the Daulah Islamiyah, the local name for the IS group. Its members include fighters from several Filipino militant factions, Fajardo said. 

Brig. Gen. Allan Nobleza, the police chief for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), said the two suspects are residents of Marawi, a Muslim-majority city in Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation.

Authorities did not say where the two, who face arrest warrants over their alleged involvement in previous bombings, could be found.

Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.  


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