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Under Aquino, jihadist car bombs are upon us

The bombing in Cotabato City August 5 that killed eight people is a qualitative deterioration of the security situation in the country, one which the Aquino government however is struggling to underplay.

It is the first time that a car bomb has been used on our soil using what has become jihadist terrorists’ favorite explosive since the 1990s: ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil (ANFO).

Car bombs: Beirut, left, last year, eight killed:  Cotabato City, right, eight killed. Inset: Arm of victim in Cotabato ripped by force of the ammonium nitrate explosive.

Car bombs: Beirut, left, last year, eight killed: Cotabato City, right, eight killed. Inset: Arm of victim in Cotabato ripped by force of the ammonium nitrate explosive.

In the past, terrorists in the country had the skill—or the means—only to insert blasting caps into 81-mm mortars, mostly bought from our military, to fashion them into what has been called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) Such IEDs kill people mainly through the shrapnel that made up the mortar’s shell and the ball bearings packed around it, projected by the explosion.

In contrast, the ANFO bomb kills largely by the force of the pressure waves traveling at 350 meters per second unleashed by the explosion. A photo of a victim (inset) right after the bombing in Cotabato grotesquely shows such power: his arm was ripped off.

There were reports that the head of one victim was also ripped off by the explosion. ANFO car bombs have the same destructive “signature” obvious in news photos after they’ve been detonated, whether in Beirut (see photo) or Cotabato City.

ANFO explosives have been terrorists’ favorite weapon as the basic material ammonium nitrate is a commonly used fertilizer anywhere in the world, although it requires some skill and knowledge to extract the appropriate quality of the ingredient to make a bomb. It is also not that easy to make it, as the ratio of the fertilizer to the gasoline and propane must be exact, or else, after detonation, the mixture merely burns rather than explode.

While first used by the Provisional Irish Republic Army in the 1970s in their war against the United Kingdom to set up a independent North Ireland, Palestinian freedom fighters and then the terrorist Al-Qaeda are said to have perfected the weapon through trial and error in their desert camps. The most infamous use of the ANFO had been in the first Al Qaeda attack by Ramsey Youseff on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombing of a Federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 that killed 168 Americans. ANFO carried in a vehicle though has become the common explosive used by jihadist suicide bombers.

One problem in the use of ANFO is that it requires lots of it, which can be carried only in a car, thus the term “car bomb.” When I was in government in 2001 when the country was faced with the threat of the Abu Sayaff and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya terrorist network, I had asked a veteran intelligence officer why we were fortunate enough not to have had a car bomb incident.

He said smiling, just half in jest: “They would need a car for this, and maybe their sponsors didn’t trust them enough to give them a vehicle, which would be enough for a would-be terrorist in Mindanao to start a jeepney business.” If you’ve seen the movie “Zero Dark Thirty”, which was based on an actual event, the powerful explosion of an ANFO bomb in a car killed CIA operatives who had been tracking Osama Bin Laden—even if the agents stood many meters away.

The vehicle used in the Cotabato City bombing had been identified as a Suzuki Multicab, which apparently had been stolen in San Juan, and brought all the way to Mindanao. Even for a run-down vehicle, it could have been easily sold for P100,000, an amount which shows that the attack was well-funded.

That the threat of terrorism has become a clear and present danger is also emphasized by the fact that President Aquino the next day – upon the “strongest advice” by his security adviser, met with the National Security Cluster of his Cabinet. In his three years in power, this is the very first time he has convened the cluster. In the past, even during the Luneta hostage and Sabah crises, he had just relied on Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to brief him and advise him on what presidential action that was needed. Aquino though and the officials who attended the meeting, such as Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, refused to disclose to media the reports and recommendations in that conference, citing only serious “security concerns.”

The significance of the Cotabato City car bombing is also highlighted by the fact that it was undertaken in the week the US issued a global warning on purportedly impending terrorist attacks. It considered the threat so serious it even closed many of its embassies in the Middle East. Was it part of a global terrorist plot?

Cotabato City Mayor Japal Guiani Jr. however claimed the criminals’ target was his sister Cynthia who is the city administrator whose convoy was passing by when the bomb exploded. My sources in the city however said in Pilipino: “As usual, pa-importante mga opisyal dito, pag may trouble, sila ang target. Car bombs are always used against stationary targets, not moving targets as you’d have to have perfect timing for that. If Mrs. Guiani was the target, using a car bomb would have been like trying to kill a fly with an Armalite in a crowded mall.”

President Aquino himself and military officials hinted that the Cotabato attack could have been undertaken by disgruntled Muslim groups who aren’t with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to whom the administration has practically promised it will have its own state by 2016. The Cotabato bombing according to that notion is a warning to government that it has to include these groups in the peace talks.

What worries me though is the background of the new US Ambassador to the Philippines recently nominated by President Obama and awaiting confirmation by the US Senate: Assistant Secretary Philip S. Goldberg. He has headed for three years now the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, described in the department’s website as its “focal point for ensuring policy review of sensitive counterintelligence and law enforcement activities around the world.” That sounds to me: “Liaison for the CIA and the NSA.”

Goldberg seems to have a knack of being deployed to “crisis countries”, having been Chief of Mission in Kosovo and Ambassador to Bolivia. He must have been so active in Bolivia that its president then declared him persona non grata and expelled him, declaring that Golderg is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.”

Why would an intelligence man be suddenly assigned to this part of the world?