WITH fighting in the Philippines’ Mindanao province still ongoing and the Islamic State having raised its black flag in Marawi City, terrorism came immediately to most minds when reports emerged of the Resorts World Manila attack.
But police in the Southeast Asian nation have vehemently denied this narrative, even as the international terror network, like clockwork, claimed responsibility for the attack that saw an alarming number of casualties – 38 have been reported dead so far and 67 injured.
They insist the attack was a botched robbery attempt, judging from the actions of the lone gunman and how the incident played out.
Still, according to local media reports, little is known about the attacker, who ended up holing himself up in a hotel room, dousing his body in gasoline and setting himself ablaze.
Information from the police say the attacker was a tall, English-speaking white man with a mustache, The Philippine Star reported.
He went to the sprawling entertainment complex in a cab, brought two large bags with him, got dressed in an elevator and then went to the second floor, ABS-CBN News reported.
He stole PHP113 million (US$2.27 million) in gambling chips and fired gunshots in the casino before setting tables on fire. During the shooting, however, he reportedly aimed upwards as though he was deliberately avoiding hitting patrons.
The chips, however, were later abandoned in a toilet.
As he left the casino, he exchanged fire with a building guard who managed to shoot him in the leg. The man, already wounded, went to the adjoining hotel and holed himself up in a room on the fifth floor.
There, he lay down on the bed, doused himself in gasoline and covered himself with a blanket before setting himself on fire.
There were no identity documents on him. Police, according to The Philippine Star, still don’t know the man’s name or why he launched the attack.
The authorities are seeking the assistance of those who may have come in contact with him, including the cab driver who ferried him to the venue. There is also the belief that the man may have frequented the casino before and may therefore be identified by staff.
An autopsy is currently being conducted on the cadaver, while police are also trying to trace the man’s identity through the serial number of the firearm he carried.
The police forensics team will likely take about two to three days before coming up with a report.
The IS, hours after the incident, issued a statement, saying (as reported by Philstar):
“Brother Abu al-Kheir al-Arkhabili was able to immerse among a gathering of Christian fighters in the Resorts World Manila in Manila where he carried out killing and hurting until he died as a martyr. About 100 Christians were killed or wounded.”
But national police chief Ronald dela Rosa pointed out that in his shooting rampage, the man “would have shot all the people gambling”, if terrorism had been his purpose.
Military spokesman Brig Gen. Restituto Padilla similarly rejected the IS claim, saying the incident had not “the slightest signature of terrorism whatsoever”, the daily reported.
“As in previous incidents, this group is prone to claim and admit every criminal incident and label it as its own, clearly indicative of its pure penchant for propaganda,” Padilla said.
As events were unfolding just after midnight Friday, US President Donald Trump reportedly wrongly labelled the incident an act of terrorism as he offered America’s thoughts and prayers to the Philippines.
— CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) June 1, 2017
But a former FBI agent when weighing in agreed with Philippine authorities on the matter.
Steve Cutler, currently chairman of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, reportedly said on ANC that the incident bore no similarity to terrorist attacks elsewhere.
He said it was more likely a botched robbery attempt, as suggested by local security forces.
“We have someone who shot up property, could have easily killed many people with a firearm, such as what the terrorists did in Mumbai, India a few years ago when they took over a hotel, and he didn’t. So I agree with the police in this,” he said, as quoted by ABS-CBN News.
He pointed out that the gunman also chose to take his life alone in a hotel room, whereas a suicide attacker would have done so in a manner that would have claimed the most number of casualties as possible.
Cutler also said the gunman would have been “desperate” and in debt, which was why he tried to rob the casino.
“It may well be that we’ll find out that he’s very very desperate to the breaking point for some kind of debt or something like that and thought that this was the only way out of it,” he said.
Philippine security forces have been engaged in battle for nearly two weeks with the IS-linked Maute group in restive Mindanao, where President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law.
Fighting broke out on May 23 when Maute members ran amok following a raid by local troops, torching and seizing buildings, stealing weapons and vehicles, taking hostages and freeing prisoners to join their fight.
The country has been on high alert since, with fears spreading that the restive region has become an Asian hub for IS fighters, whose influence and network in Syria and Iraq has been shrinking.