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Bombs for Hire: Analysis and Security Tips

The tragic bomb explosion in Cotabato City came ten days after the deadly explosion in Cagayan de Oro City. Both bombs exploded in crowded and commercial areas, killing bystanders and civilians. My first reaction after being informed of the explosion in Cotabato, just ten minutes after, was that this was a plot to terrorize Mindanao to scuttle the wealth-sharing agreement (read: peace talks with MILF) by the BIFF. My consultancy clients asked if the bombings are related to the global terror alerts raised by the United States. I don’t think so. I do not think that Al-Qaeda and the terrorists who escaped from various jails in the Middle East have reached out to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Forces war freaks, the rogue pawns of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the peace process.

Early this morning, at around 3 a.m., just two days after the Cotabato City blast, a roadside 60mm IED exploded in Midsayap, North Cotabato. No one was injured while a pawnshop’s steel roll up doors were among damage.

Eight hours later, a roadside bomb injured seven army soldiers in Mamasapano, Maguindanao and another bomb blasted the old terminal of Kabacan, North Cotabato.

Are these part of terror plans of Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, and their surrogate groups in Mindanao? I doubt. Were the bombs made by terrorists? Most likely. What are the motives?

Bombs Away!

Based on available information, I agree with the PNP that these bombings are assassination modus. But I disagree that these are new modus. Bombs, especially the so-called improvised explosive devices, have been used to assassinate political personalities, not surprisingly, those from Mindanao, mostly in ARMM since 15 years ago.

On  December 23, 2002, Datu Saudi, the eldest son of then Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr, was killed together with his 17 companions while cruising along a road in Datu Piang town by a powerful IED that was placed inside a tricycle parked along the sidewalk. The IED was remotely detonated to target the convoy.

Barely two years later, on  January 25, 2005, then incumbent governor Andal Ampatuan was targeted by some MILF forces. An IED inside a parked multi-cab was triggered remotely while his convoy was cruising in high speed in the highway in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

In 2012, the current Maguindanao governor, Esmael Mangudadatu, was also targeted for assassination. His convoy was cruising the highway of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat when a car bomb was remotely detonated. Just like with Andal’s case, the bomber most likely dialled late his cellphone trigger. He probably failed to consider the velocity of his target’s car. In both attacks, the cars tailing the convoy were the ones hit and these are the ones not armored against projectiles.

There are numerous other vehicle-borne and backpack IEDs that exploded and killed dozens of Mindanaons in the past ten years but few gained much media and national attention like the ones in CDO and Batasan Pambansa.

In 2007, Rep. Wahib Akbar was killed together with two other congressional staff when an IED exploded in the south wing of the Batasan Pambansa building. The explosion injured seven others. Akbar was the former governor of Basilan where he also operated as an Abu Sayyaf leader. The IED was inside a motorcycle that was parked near his Fortuner. He was almost a stationary target as he was preparing to get into his vehicle when the bomb was detonated.

In August 2010, Sulu Governor Sakur Tan, while going out of the Zamboanga Domestic Airport, was targeted by an IED placed inside a backpack. The two bombers were killed and two dozen well-wishers were injured in the explosion.

Why use bombs?

Masks and confuses. Unless there are claimant groups or individuals owning up to the bomb attacks, bomb explosions mask the real motive and the mastermind.

Evidences of the masking and confusing effects of bombs are glaring. President Aquino hinted (therefore he insisted) that the Cotabato bombing is related to the ongoing peace talks with the MILF, who now issues condemnation of the bombing. MILF used to claim several bombings in Mindanao as a terror act to coerce the government into agreeing with their terms.

If this is a confident statement of the President, then he is privy to the sinister plans of some personalities dealing directly with him only. Just like in the movies, someone “powerful” may have told the President that he will show what he can do to prove a point.

On the other hand, ARMM downplayed the incident that compelled the President to convene the security cluster for the first time while DILG hinted that there is no connection between CDO and Cotabato City bombings.

However, the President’s own intelligence advisers hinted that the bombing in Cotabato is linked with the US and Interpol alerts on Al-Qaeda attacks. What is then their assessment on the Cagayan de Oro bombing? Al-Qaeda may have preferred to hit good media mileage heavy targets – US/UK icons like embassies and business establishments, not only in Cotabato and Cagayan de Oro where smaller scale explosions (caused by grenades) happen regularly in the past four years. Bomb explosions are common events already to these cities that made the populace somehow tolerant with the risks to their daily lives.

Are my fellow analysts too focused on their usual suspects – that the Jemaah Islamiyah and its surrogate terror groups are proving their own worth to their funders, the Al-Qaeda? If so, then let’s expect more bombings in Maguindanao that BIFF will take credit.

While the PNP hinted on “bombs for hire” as a new modus of assassination in the Philippines, victims have their own interpretations and theories.

Take the CDO blasts as an example. Was the bomb really intended to kill the provincial board member or was he just among the collateral casualties? There were three national conventions that week in CDO – these were very tempting opportunities for terror groups to pursue their agenda.

Hard Targets. The targets wear bullet-proof vest or suits and ride in bullet-proof cars. They move around with a noticeable and attention-getting number of bodyguards. These bodyguards usually are heavily armed when moving around their turf or while cruising in convoys. A bomb can instantaneously take out (kill, injure, stun) the target plus a significant number of the protective and reactionary security men with one blast. The surviving bodyguards will rather attend to the casualties than retaliate against cellphone-carrying suspicious usiseros (kibitzers). Throwing a grenade or Molotov is a bad idea for the assassin since bodyguards can detect and react to such action. The use of firearms will need more shooters and closer engagements which may last for minutes and cause casualties to the attacking group.

Easy IED. Easier to obtain than military-issued explosives. The use of military explosive devices is risky for an assassin because it could be traced, if ever. There is hardly a military equivalent of these IEDs in the military inventory. So, home-made or anywhere-made IED is economical, thrilling to construct, and easily available. Even if the authorities can reconstruct the exploded bomb, the materials are untraceable to their sources. There is no database for mobile phones that proliferate in the provinces. There is no database of fingerprints especially those from unregistered persons in the hinterlands. This is why authorities are inclined to rely on video recordings which are only installed in few sectors of urban and commercial areas. There are hundreds of unexploded mortar rounds scattered in conflicted areas of Mindanao. In the past two decades, eighty (80) percent of the mortar shells fired by the army troops are duds or did not explode. This is equivalent to hundreds of mortar rounds as main explosive of  improvised bombs.

More damage, greater chance of hitting target. Vehicle-borne or -covered IEDs have more killing or damage effect because the metal and plastic parts of the carrier vehicle and materials along the force of the blast become deadly fragments or shrapnel. The assassin doesn’t need to be a marksman. He only needs the skill on timing – when to dial the triggering mobile phone of the IED.

Less suspicious, harder to detect manually. Parking a tricycle or a multi-cab along a highway or street is less suspicious than a left behind bag or box, much more a pressure cooker. It is also less suspicious than carrying a weapon while lingering around an area. Carrying a cellphone is much less suspicious than carrying or running away with a rifle or pistol. Just imagine how many people have cellphones in the Congress, Limketkai and Sinsuat Avenue. The authorities cannot simply make everyone mobile phones as suspects.

A bomber could be ordinary looking or with profile that can blend naturally with the population. Some are familiar faces already to the security forces that they can simply wander around to case the routes of their targets. How then did the motorcycle with explosives escape detection by the Congress security? A bomber can simply park the vehicle at a pre-chosen site and leave it there, unattended, and walk away without being suspected or accosted.

Not all places have K9 explosive sniffers.  Likewise, not all K9 sniffers are effective or well-trained teams. The parking area and driveways of Batasan Pambansa and the event area of Limketkai were most likely not “sanitized” by explosive sniffing K9 teams.


Whatever the motives of the bombings or the make of the bombs, such explosions create terrifying noises, blinding glares, suffocating smokes, and shocking scenes of mangled bodies and strewn body parts.

Terrorizing? Yes indeed, even to seasoned combat soldiers and first responders. However, the bombings that I mentioned here may not be terror acts by any terror groups since all these cited bombings don’t have claimants who could have achieved media mileage. The terror effect to the public affects how national and local leaderships react to the situations.

These bombings show that red alert conditions and check points are not as effective as expected. Just like the impact of ambushes and surprise attacks by insurgents, the public and critics of the government and security forces are blamed for failure in intelligence.

CDO and Cotabato blasts may merit more in-depth investigation in order to provide appropriate reactions and countermeasures, or public pronouncements. Our authorities are quick to say that a bombing is an isolated incident, yet, at the same time, placing the whole country in high alert status.

When no group is claiming publicly the atrocious acts, anyone or any group can brag and claim credit to being the perpetrators in the privacy of messages and whispered talks. Let’s expect copycat attacks within Central Mindanao with the corresponding increase of extortion against bus companies, fast-food chains, and other businesses without professional security coverage.

Security Tips

1. Stay away from personalities with many bodyguards or known death threats. I stay away from places with people with bodyguards because they raise the risk exposure level.

2. Keep considerable distance from any vehicular convoy on the roads. When you see a convoy trailing you while on the road, slow down or pull over to make the convoy pass through and ahead of you. This applies to military convoys.

3. Increase your situational awareness and encourage your immediate community to report any suspicious acting persons or strangers or left-behind items within your 50-meter radius (at least).

4. Know if your political leaders are under serious threats from their political enemies or business rivals. The mayors of CDO and Cotabato claimed to have received several death threats before the blasts. If local government leaders are, follow the above-mentioned tips.