An Islamic terrorist group in the Philippines that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State has been blamed by authorities for the latest bombing in the country, killing 10. And experts are warning that the worst is still to come in a campaign of violence that could destabilize the country.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were today held responsible for the bombing of a bus traveling through the southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday, which also left 42 wounded.
Major Ezra Balagtey, a military spokesman, blamed the BIFF in a text message sent to local journalists.
"The bomb/IED is made of an 81 mm mortar round [that was] cellphone-activated. The same bomb signature with the IED explosion that happened last November," he explained, referring to an attack last month on the same bus company that has also been attributed to the BIFF.
The BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has endorsed autonomy for the Muslim minority known as the Moro. The MILF signed a final settlement in March 2014, bringing to a close over 40 years of conflict. Yet the BIFF is instead pursuing a fully independent state, separate from the central government, through a campaign of violence.
"The worst is yet to come," Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told VICE News from Manila.
"Official estimates put the amount of active regular combatants at no more than 200, although the BIFF claim they have 5,000 and an additional 10,000 supporters who could be mobilized to combat readiness," said Banlaoi.
"It's difficult to say what their true strength is, but my opinion is that their strength lies not in the number of armed regulars, but in the communities who they can mobilize. Their support in the Moro communities acts as a force multiplier."
Banlaoi explained that the strong support in parts of Mindanao provided vital financing, intelligence, and cover for operations.
Interestingly, the BIFF has denied responsibility for the attack. A spokesperson for the organization, Abu Misry Mama, responded immediately to charges leveled at them.
"Bombing civilians would not benefit us. The [military] is fabricating stories again to malign us," he said in a statement.
Banlaoi added that while the BIFF has focused operations on government officials and the military to perpetuate the image of a genuine resistance group, attacks on civilians have been carried out as part of the criminal extortion and protection rackets the group uses to fund operations.
In July, BIFF fighters pledged allegiance to Islamic State, releasing a YouTube video of fighters swearing loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was later confirmed as official policy by the BIFF.
Banlaoi refused to be drawn on just how official the relationship was, which local authorities have dismissed as a public relations stunt.
"This is propaganda and we will not give these terrorists the satisfaction by commenting," a military spokesman told AFP in August.
Whatever the strength of the association, the BIFFs pursuit of an Islamic State in Mindanao could lead to greater violence and armed conflict.
"They are a real threat to the creation of a Bangsamoro government, they have the capacity to spoil the peace process and reignite the conflict, along with a number of other armed Islamist groups," said Banlaoi.